LETTER TO THE EDITOR: The erosion of trust in social institutions


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The relentless erosion of trust in our social institutions is not news. We hear it in our halls constantly and bear it in our bones achingly.

The classic five social institutions are the polity, economy, family, religion, and education, while more recently emergent modern social institutions include science, mass media, health care, the justice system, and more.

Thomas Szasz put the problem precisely: “The less a person knows about the workings of the social institutions in [their] society, the more [they] must trust those who wield power in them; and the more [they] trust those who wield such power, the more vulnerable [they] make [themselves] to becoming their victim.”

Yet for any society to exist, certain basic functions must occur. People must be reproduced or recruited to replace those who die. Newcomers must conform to the norms and structures of that society. Goods and services must be produced and distributed. Cultural expressions of the human spirit and experience must be shared. Order must be preserved. And a sense of identity that unites society must be established and transmitted to the next generation.

Social institutions are how all these societal needs are met.

Alarmingly, the Proof Strategies CanTrust Index 2023 reported precipitous declines in our trust in freedom, safety, and democracy in just the past three years. For example, only 49 percent of Canadians said they trusted their country to perform as a democracy, down from 65 percent in 2020, with the least trusting being the youngest Canadians.

Also last year, Statistics Canada reported that 62 percent of Canadians had confidence in the police, 47 percent had confidence in the education system, 46 percent in the justice system, and only 32 percent and 31 percent in the federal government and news media respectively. Historically, Gallup has tracked public confidence in social institutions since 1973, and over half of them now have less than half the trust they held 50 years ago.

Though the trust trajectory of most social institutions is similar, their stories are different. For example, Pew Research reports that only 57 percent of Americans now trust science, down from 73 percent pre-pandemic, due to contesting vaccine safety and climate change. Statistics Canada reports that 65 percent of Canadians identified as religious in 2021, down from 83 percent in 2001, as traditional organized religion loses adherents to unregulated spirituality.

Regarding the economy, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer which measures trust that various organizations “will do the right thing,” reported that 47 percent of Canadians think capitalism does more harm than good. Then in 2023, Gallup reported that, whereas 65 percent of Americans trusted small business, only 14 percent trusted big business.

Perhaps most influentially, in 2022 Abacus Data reported that 44 percent of Canadians think much information from news organizations is false—erroneous misinformation, fraudulent disinformation, or malicious malinformation—with the highest rates of mistrust on the political right. Edelman Canada summarized it as “a failing trust ecosystem unable to confront the rampant infodemic.”

So, what are the social consequences of the gradual, grinding, grim dwindling of public trust in social institutions? For one, the powerlessness of alienation worsens. As an attribute of individuals, alienation involves lack of influence on social institutions someone does not trust yet is trapped within and forced to rely upon. It leads to estrangement, cynicism, and passivity, and culminates in disengagement.

Second, the normlessness of anomie festers. As an attribute of society, anomie involves loss of social solidarity due to the breakdown of a collective conscience, and hence social cohesion. It leads to moral and consequently social disintegration, and culminates in autonomy—self as norm.

Third, the lawlessness of anarchism inflames. As a libertarian political philosophy opposed to all forms of authority, anarchism seeks to abolish the social institutions it claims maintain unnecessary coercion, including the state and capitalism. It leads to social chaos and culminates in insurrection.

What might curb the collective erosion of trust in social institutions? Institutions must practise integrity, authenticity, and transparency, must promote the flourishing of all persons in their orbit, and must “do the right thing for the right reason.” In return, individuals must acknowledge fallibility in all things human, must recognize that trust is partially volitional, not just psychological, and must pursue truth in all its perplexing complexity, not just in populist simplicity.

But what are the chances of collectively realizing these virtues of both institutions and individuals? Well, what generates and drives hope?

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