Most of us trust most of our friends. We trust them not to cheat and lie to us for their own gain. We trust them not to steal from us or to assault us. But how about strangers? Not a specific stranger but strangers in general. Do you trust them? Do you trust the other people in your country not to cheat, lie, steal, and assault others for their own gain? Maybe you think like me that most people are okay but there’s a few bad apples. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s a group of people you particularly don’t trust. A group that you think has more than a few bad apples. Like maybe politicians, or bankers, or immigrants, or muslims, or christians, or atheists, or women, or men, etc.
How much we trust strangers has a very significant impact on politics, economics and the well being of our country. Trust is the social glue that enables us to live and work together. For example, those who trust others tend to be more accepting of higher taxes. They trust their politicians to spend the money sensibly. They trust other people to use the social welfare system appropriately, not to abuse it. They trust successful people, all of whom have been helped by social policies like education and infrastructure, to give back through the tax system. Socialism is built on trust.
When the trust of others breaks down we instead expect politicians to spend our taxes looking after their self-interests, we expect successfully people to avoid paying their taxes, and we expect strangers to abuse the social welfare system to their own advantage. In such a world it’s only natural to want to pay less tax, to want less money spent on welfare, and to blame these others that we don’t trust for the problems we face.
In Britain there have been a number of incidents recently that likely reduce the trust we have in others.
- The global financial crisis and the subsequent bail-out of the rich through bank bail-outs and the propping-up of asset prices
- The Members of Parliament expenses scandal
- The high levels of immigration from Eastern Europe
There’s probably a lot more if you think about it. In hindsight there are things that could have been handled better. But I want to speak about immigration because it’s particularly relevant at the moment.
When a few foreigners immigrate into Britain they are welcomed. We like quirky and unusual and the foreign couple living near the village pub are precisely that. We welcome them, we ask them about their homeland, their family, what they like about Britain. They become the friends of the people that meet them and are of no concern to the rest of us.
But when there are many immigrants we become suspicious. Why are so many foreigners coming to live here? It’s certainly not for the weather. What do they want? Can we trust them? In time the suspicion fades and the newcomers are treated as British (and their children of course are British), and they in turn may join us in being suspicious of the next wave of immigrants.
The European Union’s policy of free movement of people is laudable, but while it produces long-term benefit to all the nations of Europe it also causes short-term pain in this failure of trust. The EU is still trying to absorb and adjust to the immigration patterns instigated by the large number of countries that joined in 2004 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia) and 2007 (Bulgaria, Romania) and to calm down from the resulting surge in distrust and nationalist politics.
In time we will trust these strangers among us and regard them as our own. Because most people are good people. Meanwhile, this is the worst time in our 40 year membership for the UK government to call a referendum on our EU membership. This is likely a high point for the Leave vote. I just hope that Remain wins despite the trust deficit that is stacked against it.