May 1, 2019

Social and Political Trust: Concepts, Causes, and Consequences




In this paper, Kevin Vallier outlines the nature, causes, and consequences of social and political trust. Its purpose is to both summarize some of the main findings of the large empirical literatures on social and political trust and to draw out some implications from these literatures for sustaining a diverse social order.

The overall conclusion of this essay is two-fold: First, social and political trust are critical social achievements for sustaining a diverse social order, but social trust is more important than political trust. Second, liberal democratic market-institutions play a modest role in sustaining social trust, and a large role in sustaining political trust. We can conclude, then, that liberal-democratic market societies are part of a positive causal feedback loop that sustain trusting social orders with diverse persons who disagree.

Vallier begins by outlining the idea of social trust in the empirical literature and reviewing the way in which it is measured. He then outlines the causes of social trust in section II and explores the many consequences of social trust in section III. The distinct but related idea of political trust and the way it is measured is reviewed in section IV, and the causes and consequences of political trust are examined in sections V and VI respectively. Vallier concludes in section VII by exploring the implications of the previous sections for sustaining a diverse social order.

This paper was written and published with grant support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Trust, Media and Democracy initiative, and was previously published by the Knight Foundation at KF.org.


Kevin Vallier is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University, director of the university’s Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law program, and an adjunct fellow of the Niskanen Center. He is the author of Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation (Routledge, 2014), an exploration of religious liberty and liberal toleration, and Must Politics Be War? Restoring Our Trust in the Open Society (Oxford University Press, 2018), a case for liberal institutions that promote peaceful public negotiation, mutual accommodation, and social trust in the face of persistent disagreements about fundamental questions.