What is a high-trust society? Trust for family members and trust for strangers are two distinct things, and may even be inversely correlated. It is the latter--trust for strangers--that is generally referred to when levels of societal trust are discussed or measured, however. In a post where Arnold Kling takes a stab at it, commenter Lars Smith pithily defines it for me:
A high trust society is one where vegetables can be sold unattended on the roadside, placed in boxes together with a price list, a pair of scales, and a cigar box for the money.And of course this works fantastically if everyone plays by the rules--no need for the deadweight labor loss of guarding the vegetables, wrangling in court with those accused of trying to steal them, and ultimately punishing them for their theft. When the rules are breached though, it doesn't, and there is only so much we can expect a pro bono unassuming local guy to do.
Trustworthiness is a desirable trait at every societal level save for the individual one (at least in certain circumstances, including the obvious ones like being able to successfully steal merchandise from a retailer without being caught). Being trusting of others, however, is not necessarily so--naivete is not self-evidently desirable like trustworthiness is, and being overly trusting allows for free riders and cheats to gain more from their free riding and cheating, thus incentivizing them to do more of it in the future.
There is a chicken-and-egg question to ponder here, too. Are Scandinavians more trusting than Brazilians by natural disposition, or are they more trusting because other Scandinavians are more deserving of trust than other Brazilians are? Both reasons, probably. Is, ceteris paribus, it better to be a trusting person or one who is suspicious of others? Holding all other things equal when asking a question like that is virtually impossible to do.
That said, my working assumption is that a trusting society, irrespective of how trustworthy members of said society are, is preferable to one in which most people are suspicious of others. The US is usually considered a mid-to-high trust society, lower than Northwestern Europe but higher than South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Tapping the GSS, the following tables offer some insight into how relatively trusting various demographic groups are in the US.
The trust item employed here was introduced in 2010, so all the results have contemporary relevance. The question, set on a five-point scale, asks each respondent if he thinks most people try to be fair with him or try to take advantage of him when they get the chance. The higher the score, the more trusting of others the group is. The standard deviation for the entire respondent pool is 1.37.
By intelligence via wordsum vocabulary test scores, with respondents broken up into five categories; Really Smarts (wordsum score of 9-10, comprising 13% of the population), Pretty Smarts (7-8, 26%), Normals (6, 22%), Pretty Dumbs (4-5, 27%), and Really Dumbs (0-3, 12%):
By religious belief:
By partisan identification:
By political orientation:
By educational attainment:
|< High school||2.54|
|High school grad||3.00|
Educated, intelligent, white, Republican, older, and agnostic--these are the characteristics of a high-trust individual. Save for agnosticism, these are also all characteristics of the America of the past. Immigration-driven changes in the US' demography are ensuring that this country becomes a less trusting one in the future than it is today.
GSS variables used: FAIR5(1-5), RACECEN1(1)(2)(4-10)(15-16), AGE, EDUC(0-11)(12)(13-15)(16-17)(18-20), GOD(1)(2)(3-5)(6), POLVIEWS(1-3)(4)(5-7), PARTYID(0-1)(2-4)(5-6)