The other day we had the pleasure of meeting senior colleagues at Edelman London, part of the global team who prepare the annual Edelman Trust Barometer. The online survey aims explicitly at educated people round the world who follow current affairs.

This year’s survey concluded that trust in governments had suffered a sharp erosion in the past year, a finding that is both unsurprising and (as far as it goes) welcome. Yet it also suggested (perversely) that people wanted more government action in the regulatory field. Here’s a snapshot of the results as recorded by the BBC.

Trust in government stayed high in several countries including China (perhaps because people there ‘trust’ the authorities to watch the replies in online surveys like this one?) yet in China trust in NGOs had leaped – NGOs there seen as an emerging force for alternative views?

Trust in business had also declined. Not surprisingly perhaps, given what is going on.

Such surveys are more interesting and indicative than strictly scientific. Yet this one coincides with what we might expect. Basically, as people round the world get access to new cheap IT, the emerging energy of networks is disrupting the established power and effectiveness (and legitimacy) of hierarchies. The rate at which government is unable to cope is accelerating: new laws and policies can be out of date or rendered irrelevant before they are promulgated.

Plus the Tower of Babelisation represented by ‘social media’ makes it all worse – facts, rumours and complaints all appear and circulate at startling speed, creating strange echo chambers in which truth, sense or nonsense alike are amplified to a meaningless crescendo. Governments are unnerved by this clamour and start to look for instant results. See the latest shameful row over RBS bonuses in the UK, where the government seem to have bowed to ‘public opinion’ and pressed a private citizen not to enjoy the bonus he is entitled to under his contract.

People in all countries sense this confusion and look to other ways to get things done, while hankering after greater certainty or order which (they still think) only government can provide. Examples in all directions: mainly incoherent, such as the creepy collectivist demands of assorted ‘Occupy’ tendencies.

One of the ideas which the survey throws up is the proposition that we need to move away from (rigid) Rules towards (more flexible) Principles or Standards. But how?

Look at the Eurozone drama unfolding once again today, as I type. The EU leaders are scrambling to come up with even more rules, in the shape of a brand new treaty which is intended to impose strict requirements on errant member states. Yet we all know that the new rules are unlikely to be enforceable, and new standards are unlikely to be respected when things get difficult. No-one in power dares suggest that the EU structure as currently configured is itself the main problem. Instead they press their leaking euro-canoe on towards the deeper faster rapids, proclaiming that that is the only sensible thing to do.

Trust in fact is what is wrong with the Eurozone. The Germans conclude that (say) the Greek government can not be trusted to do what is right and so must give way to EU-imposed technocrats. The Greeks (not unreasonably) think that they’ll get stiffed by such a procedure which is designed to prop up German, French and other over-stretched banks.

Meanwhile the world peruses this unseemly flailing around and concludes that a bickering and demographically declining Europe can not wholly be trusted to repay money it has borrowed, hence imposes higher interest rates to help cover the risk.

Trust, in short, is simply another way of looking at Confidence. And as the Edelman 2012 survey suggests, it is unsurprising that global popular confidence in ‘government’ is declining – but not easy to work out what sensibly might be done about it.

Do any long-standing readers remember this?

Here is my own Grand Unifying Theory of Politics.

The core question of politics and economics is Trust. More specifically, under what circumstances can and should one trust strangers?

The greater the ambient level of trust in any given social space, the easier it is to do things quickly and well. People who scarcely know each other or who have never even met can strike sophisticated deals, knowing (a) that other partners are likely to be reliable, and (b) that if things go wrong the local state institutions will honestly help sort out the problem.

Without Trust of this sort, personal and organizational horizons shrink. Extended family networks and associated corruption thrive as the best way of dealing with the trust problem.

Or one trusts primarily members of one’s own group/clan/religion/community. And assumes that members of other groups/clans/religions/communities are doing the same, so they are not to be trusted too far since their primary loyalty (like one’s own) is not to a fair, neutral process.

All this is massively obvious across the former Yugoslavia space. Political leaders must represent ‘their’ national communities first and foremost if they are to get elected; voters distrust other communities and make a mainly ethnic/national choice as a form of political fire insurance.

Even in the UK where there is no serious complaint about the intrinsic fairness of the legal system and Trust is at civilizationally high levels, many Scots want a different political structure, viz some sort of independence from England. Likewise Quebec, Kurds, Chechens and countless other examples. The Israeli/Palestinian problem seems capable of being settled only on an ethno-national basis.

Thus the so-called ‘nation-state’ turns out to be a sophisticated device for enabling trust to operate, often at much higher levels of population. This has created conditions for the surge of economic growth and creativity seen around much of the globe over the past couple of centuries. Greater attention to this fundamental trust issue would pay huge dividends in the international development industry. 

Our success here in Europe (and the ruinous experience of the two World Wars where certain national ambitions ran amok ) has brought us to think that there is a new ‘higher’ stage of development.

The European Union is a unique example of an attempt to create a wider context of trust at a supra-national level. But it too risks making a fundamental blunder by trying to insist on, or sneakily nudge people towards, a new ‘European’ uber-identity which supersedes supposedly drearily parochial ‘national’ identities… 

True then. Even truer today.