Societies of trust

José Zalaquett

José Zalaquett

Head of the Project at MOOC Chile
Lawyer, Universidad de Chile. Doctor Honoris Causa, by the Universities of Notre Dame and City University of New York.
José Zalaquett

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An abundant academic literature has been produced in the last two or three decades on the topic of societies of trust . This is very relevant today given that trust in public institutions has markedly declined in the Americas and elsewhere, according to several opinion polls.

The different authors who have written on this topic emphasize that peoples’ trust in public institutions and in their fellow citizens is essential for the economic development of nations, the promotion of public transparency and accountability as well as to combat corruption.

In the various studies on this theme it has become a commonplace to cite the case of the Netherlands, particularly since the union of the Seven Provinces and the formation of the Dutch Republic in the late 16th century. The positive importance of the Dutch citizens’ will to cooperate in the pursuit of the common good is highlighted, particularly their trust in their fellow citizens and in public institutions. The vibrant dynamism of the new nation state would have been grounded in the Dutch burgers belief that it made sense to work for the public good and that their compatriots would share that belief. This attitude would contribute to explain the geopolitical, commercial and cultural success of the new Republic. In fact this small European country established colonies in three continents, developed an intense international trading activity and, at home, an unusually tolerant society. On top of all that, it managed to patiently gain from the sea as much territory as the one originally granted to it by nature and history.

It is difficult to name societies of trust in Latin America. However, that could be done in certain cases if we consider their citizens’ trust on discrete aspects, such as that it makes sense to abide by the law or to pay taxes. In this regard, within Latin America Chile and Uruguay and possibly, to a lesser degree, Costa Rica, maybe evaluated more positively than negatively. Probably it is not a coincidence that the two former countries tie for the first place among the least corrupt Latin American countries in the survey prepared yearly by Transparency International; concerning Costa Rica, although it is quite below Chile and Uruguay in the said survey, it ranks far above the rest of Latin American countries.

Given the recent corruption scandals in Chile, one may question if it is right to consider that it has low levels of corruption. To that it might be replied that a non corrupt country is not necessarily one where no cases of corruption occur. Rather, the important factor is that the “immune system” functions. That is, that such countries’ public opinion does not simply shrug off corruption but rather reacts with outrage, and that the courts of law act promptly and severely. Even so, it is of crucial importance to foster in them citizens’ trust in public institutions.

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