• … social and political distrust and partisan divergence are mutually reinforcing… I hope to identify trust-increasing liberal rights practices, where certain basic liberal rights, recognized in constitutional law, exercised regularly by the people, and embodied in public policy, are the principal drivers of trust.
  • –Kevin Vallier, Trust in a Polarized Age,1 p. 9

Kevin Vallier’s Trust in a Polarized Age is heavy going for those of us who are not up to speed with academic political theory. For me, the book’s language is often so difficult that it might as well be written in German. But assuming that my attempt to translate the book into English is not too far off base, Vallier raises some important issues concerning the conditions required for liberty.

For Vallier, a central problem for political life is that,

  • … sincere and informed people can nonculpably disagree about many important matters, including what the good life consists in and what justice requires… The sources of honest disagreement are vast, and they afflict us so much that we cannot possibly reliably detect when disagreement is reasonable, given that reasoning and experiences of others can differ from ours dramatically, without our realizing it. Of course, many of our disagreements are due to one or both parties being irrational, unreasonable, or simply malicious. Because we tend to be biased in favor of attributing intellectual or moral error to our opponents; recognizing evaluative pluralism is a hard skill to develop. (p. 21)

Any cooperative endeavor, from a marriage to a business, to a government, requires people to get along in spite of differences. You cannot just assume that your spouse will always do what you want, that Marketing and Operations will naturally arrive at the same priorities, or that public policy solutions will be transparently obvious to all concerned. For relationships to work, the people involved have to find ways to live with their disagreements.

These cooperative endeavors require trust. Otherwise, politics becomes war by other means. Vallier writes,

  • I believe that the only way to solve this problem of political war is to identify institutions that can create and sustain high levels of trust among persons with diverse values and commitments, specifically ones that sustain trust in society (social trust) and trust in political institutions (political trust). p. 20

If we look at trends in the United States in recent decades, we can see declines in social trust and political trust. We also see increased polarization, including an increase in sheer dislike for the other side in politics.2

“Vallier points out that the decline in trust and increased hatred of political opponents are mutually reinforcing.”

Vallier points out that the decline in trust and increased hatred of political opponents are mutually reinforcing. He suggests that the way to break the cycle is to reinforce

  • five liberal rights practices: freedom of association, markets and private property rights; social welfare programs, democratic constitutionalism, and electoral democracy. p. 277

What does Vallier mean by democratic constitutionalism? He writes,

  • Democratic constitutionalism holds both that the legislative process should appeal to extensive citizen input (democratic), and that government officials should convert citizen input into policy via processes that are predictable, effective, and neutral between citizens (constitutionalism). p. 210

By electoral democracy, he means the right of each citizen to participate by voting or competing for office.

Intuitively, we can imagine how the five liberal rights practices might foster trust:

—As people form associations, they will experience cooperation with fellow citizens of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.

—When people can make their own choices in markets and enjoy the use of private property there will be less conflict over resources.

—Social welfare programs will encourage people to believe that the society in which they live offers a fair bargain.

—With democratic constitutionalism and electoral democracy, people will see government as legitimate and responsive to their interests.

In selecting these five liberal rights practices for emphasis, Vallier did not simply rely on intuition. He looked for the factors most correlated with social and political trust in the empirical literature. My lack of confidence in the methods employed in that literature is such that I would have preferred that Vallier stick to intuition.

Not all these liberal practices are consistent with an ideal libertarian society. Vallier is saying that we are constrained to living among people with divergent values, and in that setting the most feasible libertarian society is one which sometimes bends libertarian principles to the popular democratic will.

This struck me as an argument for what Tyler Cowen calls “state-capacity libertarianism.”3 In a pluralistic society, many people will have expectations for state interventions. It is better to have state intervention well-executed. Government failure will only lead people to cede more power to government in the hope of seeing improvement.

For me, the relevance of Vallier’s book to contemporary trends seemed somewhat tenuous. Readers looking for a thorough analysis of how we arrived at our current state of reduced trust and increased polarization will be disappointed. As to how to recover from our plight, Vallier writes,

  • If we can limit corruption, create more even-handed and professional judicial systems and police forces, and stably protect everyone’s legal property rights, we may regain some measure of social trust. We could do even better by compressing economic inequality through coercion-reducing policies. And if we increase quality of governance and procedural fairness through minipublics and prediction markets, limit rent-seeking, and increase broad-based economic growth, we should regain a measure of political trust. We should also consider electoral reforms aimed at either reducing divergence or controlling its deleterious effects. p. 278

These “solutions” struck me as in need of much more elaboration.

What about a libertarian who wishes to live in a society without a welfare state and in which individual rights are more firmly guaranteed against electoral democracy? In an online appendix to the book, Vallier proposes a secession option.

  • Just as the Amish receive a range of religious exemptions from participating in government schooling and retirement planning, so libertarian anarchists might receive a range of exemptions from government programs and policies that they have sufficient reason to reject. Thus, perhaps libertarian anarchists should receive an exemption from paying taxes so long as they forgo the public services those taxes finance.
  • … Other radicals, like radical socialists and radical Christian theocrats, can be accommodated with similar opportunities. We may need a series of charter cities or reservations that nontrivial numbers of radicals can move to spread throughout different countries.4

In this offhand way, Vallier seems to imply that radicalism cannot be accommodated in a liberal society. Radical groups must be allowed to secede. But that raises the question of why every group does not secede. I think that the answer is that society can allow a tiny, well-defined group (like the Amish) to secede, but secession cannot be more widely employed.

For more on these topics, see “Appealing to Empathy to Overcome Polarization,” by Arnold Kling, Library of Economics and Liberty, July 6, 2020; and “He Tells Us It’s the Institutions,” by Arnold Kling, Library of Economics and Liberty, February 3, 2020. See also the EconTalk podcast episode Arnold Kling on the Three Languages of Politics, Revisited.

This leads me to suggest that Vallier’s social trust and political trust are not sufficient to form cohesive associations. For people to collaborate, they also need to believe in the value of the collaborative effort. This might be called “enterprise trust” or a shared sense of mission or a common myth. In order to have a durable marriage, the partners must agree that the marriage itself is an exalted endeavor. In order to have an effective business, the employees need to believe in the mission of the firm. Finally, citizens must believe that their nation-state has a noble purpose.

Toward the end of the book, Vallier himself points to another important cultural characteristic.

  • To begin to trust, we must reflect on our own intellectual limitations and adopt an attitude of humility. None of us have all the answers, and every one of us is likely to be wrong on some important political issues. The other side just might help us to get at the truth, at least from time to time. p. 278

In order to preserve liberty, this attitude must be widespread. Even among libertarians.


[1] Kevin Vallier, Trust in a Polarized Age. Oxford University Press, 2020.

[2] For example, see: He Tells Us It’s the Institutions; Tribal Psychology and Political Behavior; and The Insiders versus the Outsiders. Arnold Kling, Library of Economics and Liberty.

[3] Tyler Cowen, “What libertarianism has become and will become- State Capacity Libertarianism.” Marginal Revolution, January 1, 2020.

[4] Appendix B: Accommodating Radicals in a System of Trust., companion website, pdf file.

*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

Read more of what Arnold Kling’s been reading. For more book reviews and articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.

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