In order to function well, societies rely on trust between citizens and the state as well as among citizens themselves. We must be able to trust the government with our taxes as well as feel confident that our elected leaders will act in the best interest of the nation.
This entails having faith in public institutions, and taking for granted that the police will protect us even though we may be poor or belong to a minority group. In a similar vein, we must be able to trust those with whom we have social relations.
Our network of relatives, friends and acquaintances is largely based on trustworthy relationships which allows us to help one another in times of need or simply solicit favours and advice.
Trust plays a crucial role in determining societal welfare as well as economic well-being. The Scandinavian welfare state, often praised for its generosity and efficiency, relies heavily on trust.
The public transport system in Norway is an illustrative example. We do not have conductors checking our tickets. It is assumed that everyone will pay without being asked to, because not doing so would harm the common good. What about taxation?
It is basically the same story. We agree to pay high taxes (with or without a smile) because we are confident that we will receive high quality public services such as free schooling and medical services. Trust in the system also means that Norwegians expect public servants to do their work without additional inducements such as bribes. Thus bending the rules is typically not an option; in fact, doing so and receiving a service out of turn, is actually frowned upon.
But the Norwegian system is not perfect. And as in most societies, there are individuals who, by their actions, contribute towards eroding public trust. For example, there will always be those who ride the bus without buying a ticket, expecting to get away with it.
The occasional ticket checks, when controllers issue hefty fines for those without a valid ticket, may be embarrassing and can potentially function as a deterrent. In most cases, the combination of voluntary purchase of a ticket and a stiff penalty for those caught without one, appears to work well. And there will always be individuals who cheat on their taxes—also in Norway.
But by and large, a high level of trust in the Norwegian welfare state has helped the country and its citizens achieve one of the world’s best living standards. While not all countries can necessarily adopt the Norwegian model, it may be worthwhile, in many contexts characterised by distrust, to undertake a renewed national conversation on creating greater levels of trust.