Responding to the General Social Survey’s statement “most people can be trusted,” 46 percent of Americans answered in the affirmative in 1973, but that figure fell to 31 percent in 2014.
Americans now find themselves in the midst of a “mistrust arms race.” Far too many white people arm themselves out of fear of blacks and immigrants. Alarmingly, more women are arming themselves against the fear of sexual assault.
Many blacks and immigrants feel that they are not accorded equal value, so they have good reason not to trust those who discriminate against them. Sadly, more and more blacks are arming themselves against whites and the police. According to Pew Research, over two-thirds of whites have confidence in the police, but only one-half of Hispanics and one-third of blacks do.
There are also Americans who mistrust, sometimes with good reason, “elites” who hold positions of power.
With far less reason, there are those who contend that blacks and immigrants, with government backing, are “jumping the line” for jobs and welfare benefits. With no good reason and with disastrous consequences, far too many have no confidence in experts on crucial issues such as pollution and climate change.
In 2014 the World Values Survey asked the question “Can people be trusted?” and only 38 percent of Americans answered “Yes,” but a much higher percentage of Norwegians (74), Swedes (64), and Finns (58) did so. In 2015, Eurostat figures for the same question on a scale of 0-10 were 8.3 for Denmark, 7.4 for Finland, 7.3 for Norway, 7 for Iceland, and 6.9 for Sweden.
It is estimated that the Danes’ high trust levels save their justice system $2,000 per person each year, and it also adds 25 percent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
One would think that large in-flows of refugees would have reduced these high trust levels, but in Sweden, which welcomed a record number in 2015, trust has remained the same.
In Denmark, which at one time accepted the most refugees per capita, confidence in others has actually gone up.
When I first arrived in Denmark as a Rotary Fellow in 1966, I was amazed at the number of baby buggies unattended outside the shops in Copenhagen. This practice did not change during the winter or after subsequent visits.
During a city tour of Helsinki last month, I learned about a Finnish tradition of communal carpet cleaning in a local lake. Because the carpets were so heavy with water, they were left out for days to dry. To visitors worried about theft, the Finns answered: “If we can trust the words of our neighbors, we can trust them with our carpets.”
For years there has been a debate about the relationship between trust and the success of the European welfare states, which, according to a recent study are more efficient and effective than the U.S.’s broken system.
One side of this discussion argues that progressive taxation reduces income inequality and increased levels of trust are the result.
Those on the other side of this issue say that Danes, Norwegians and Swedes had strong faith in each other before their welfare states were established. They point out some of the highest levels of trust in the U.S. are found in states that had the largest number of Scandinavian immigrants.
A few even argue that Nordic egalitarianism goes all the way back to the Vikings. When the French came out to negotiate with these brutal marauders, they asked to speak with their king. The Vikings laughed and declared “we have no king.”
Countering this weak theory is the fact that Vikings had their chieftans, and there was also the infamous King Canute, who united Denmark, Norway, England, Scotland and parts of Sweden by force. A Social Democrat he was not.
Nick Gier taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Email him at email@example.com.