High-Trust and Low-Trust Societies, Banks, and Europe

Pawel Morski:

A “banking system responsive to local needs” quickly becomes “piggy bank for local politicians”.

Well, local politicians are elected, after all. Democracy is a thing. But I know what he means. That Spanish caja that was run, into the ground, by the Catholic Church. That kind of thing. WestLB back in the day when it financed William Hague’s best friend buying all the pubs and the Ministry of Defence married quarters and Peer Steinbrück was its regulator, before it blew up and the explosion threw him all the way from Hannover to Berlin and he got to be federal finance minister, SPD leader, Mr Prudent McBluebollocks an’all.

Does Neal Ascherson really not know about HypoVereinsbank?

I think the operational question here, certainly as far as the UK is concerned, is “are we a low-trust or a high-trust society?” It works for the Germans (for some values of works, and except when it doesn’t work), it doesn’t work for the Spanish (except of course when it did).

Sparks = high trust, cajas = low trust. We like to think we are a high-trust, low-corruption north European country, but I often think the history of the UK post-1979 is the history of an emerging low-trust society.

Of course, when we were canonically much more trust-y, Jimmy Savile was raping everything in sight, the Met Police was basically our biggest organised crime gang, and the MOD was perfectly happy to test nuclear weapons on our own soldiers. But then, trustful Germany has had some pretty decent scandals. Do you remember before Wolfgang Schäuble was All Better Now, when he was responsible for a massive illegal party financing system linked with the Elf-Aquitaine scandal? ‘Course you do. And further back, when he did precisely the same thing with German arms manufacturers?

But trust is an interesting concept. If you knew for a fact the people you dealt with were honest, you wouldn’t need to trust them. Trust and betrayal go together. High-trust societies are ones where people behave as if they could trust each other, and that choose to deal with the inevitable abuses of trust in certain ways. Low-trust societies are ones in which people behave as if they cannot trust each other, and especially, as if there was no realistic hope of sorting out abuses of trust later.

I actually wonder if the distinction is really about what happens after a breach of trust is discovered. J.K. Galbraith’s bezzle, the inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in an economy, is a universal phenomenon but the means of dealing with it differ dramatically. When an aeroplane crashes into the ground, in the UK or, say, the Netherlands, the first people on the scene after the fire brigade are the AAIB inspectors, whose mission is to establish the facts. In Italy, or Greece, the first people after the fire brigade are the police, come to arrest any of the crew who survived. The distinction is telling. If you can’t expect justice, and you can’t expect the truth, you might as well practice cynicism like you practice an instrument, as a skill or even an art.

In a sense, social trust is an ideology. We choose to believe that our neighbours are basically decent people in a civilised society, or that of course they’re all the same and all crooked, but wouldn’t you be if you had the chance, and so you better look after number one. And if it is an ideology, it is part of the political sphere and it can be changed. Now there’s something for you – hope. But I fucking hate hope and hope-mongers, so…ah.

One way of looking at Francois Hollande’s campaign for the “moralisation of politics” is an effort to do just that, to keep France from becoming even more of a low-trust society than it already is. Of course, whether France is a Latin country (stereotypes: Catholics, inflation, tourists, Picasso, bureaucracy, conspiracy politics) or a northern one (stereotypes: Vikings, Gothic buildings, electrical engineering, the Republic, international modernism, ENA) is a cliche up there with whether Britain is facing Europe or the high seas or whether Russia is in Europe. But perhaps there’s some truth to it. Is it…spreading?

Low-trust societies, I think, emerge when the norms imposed by the elite are both compulsory and also impossible, and especially when the elite doesn’t seem to practice them itself. You could put it another way: it’s Berlusconi’s Europe, and we’re just living in it.