Source: Washington Post
Most policy makers still don’t understand the urgent need to restore trust in our financial system, or the need to prosecute Wall Street executives for fraud and other criminal wrongdoing.
But top economists have been saying for well over a decade that trust is necessary for a stable economy, and that prosecuting the criminals Is necessary to restore trust.
Trust is Necessary for a Stable Economy
In his influential 1993 book Making Democracy Work, Robert Putnam showed how civic attitudes and trust could account for differences in the economic and government performance between northern and southern Italy.
Political economist Francis Fukiyama wrote a book called Trust in 1995, arguing that the most pervasive cultural characteristic influencing a nation’s prosperity and ability to compete is the level of trust or cooperative behavior based upon shared norms. He stated that the United States, like Japan and Germany, has been a high-trust society historically but that this status has eroded in recent years.
In 1998, Paul Zak (Professor of Economics and Department Chair, as well as the founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, Professor of Neurology at Loma Linda University Medical Center, and a senior researcher at UCLA) and Stephen Knack (a Lead Economist in the World Bank’s Research Department and Public Sector Governance Department) wrote a paper called Trust and Growth, arguing:
Adam Smith … observed notable differences across nations in the ‘probity’ and ‘punctuality’ of their populations. For example, the Dutch ‘are the most faithful to their word.’John Stuart Mill wrote: ‘There are countries in Europe . . . where the most serious impediment to conducting business concerns on a large scale, is the rarity of persons who are supposed fit to be trusted with the receipt and expenditure of large sums of money’ (Mill, 1848, p. 132).
Enormous differences across countries in the propensity to trust others survive today.
Trust is higher in ‘fair’ societies.
High trust societies produce more output than low trust societies. A fortiori, a sufficient amount of trust may be crucial to successful development. Douglass North (1990, p. 54) writes,
The inability of societies to develop effective, lowcost enforcement of contracts is the most important source of both historical stagnation and contemporary underdevelopment in the Third World.
If trust is too low in a society, savings will be insufficient to sustain positive output growth. Such a poverty trap is more likely when institutions – both formal and informal – which punish cheaters are weak.
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