Agnostic has been marshaling a sundry series of posts that trace how shifts in the rate of violent crime are associated with changes in the behaviors and culture of broader society, from the rise and fall of shorts' length (heh) to disappearance and resurrection of drive-ins.
Initially, I figured, understandably enough, that trust levels would tend to rise as violent crime declined, and fall during times of increasing violence. Agnostic argues that this is not the case, however. Instead, increasing levels of trust propel people out of their cells and into the commons where they come into more social contact with other people than they do during low trust times, when people keep to themselves. It is this increase in social mingling that brings on an increase in violent crime, as the perpetrators of those crimes now have greater and more varied opportunities to strike (and it is not always necessarily a consequence of mendacious intent on their part--more social contact inevitably means more confrontations that may result in violent outcomes, even if neither party involved planned on having it end up that way).
Agnostic's trust-influences-violence-and-violence-influences-everything-else theory (my eloquent naming, not his!) is intriguing if not obviously convincing. How does the increasing racial and ethnic diversification of the US, and the consequent "hunkering down" it brings, play into this relationship? Robert Putnam shows that diversity dampens social participation, but it is also associated with higher rates of violent crime. Of course, despite increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the US, crime levels have fallen steadily for two decades now. As more diversity brings more social retreat and lower levels of trust, will violent crime rates continue to decline? Perhaps a continuing drop in violence should be thought of as a silver-lining in the balkanizing skies above.
Anyway, I wondered if any correlation between trust levels and violent crime could be detected in the US from the early seventies to today. Scaling the national rate of violent crime to responses to the GSS question over whether "most people can be trusted" or "you can't be too careful in life", I graphed the relationship:
The correlation is an insignificant .10. When violent crime is compared to trust levels a couple of years prior, the correlation becomes an inverse (which is to be expected in Agnostic's conception of the trust-violence relationship) .16 (p = .47). That's only slightly less easy to dismiss as meaningless.
By no means does this refute any part of Agnostic's theory, as the GSS survey question just gauges a general feeling among respondents, not how they actually behave, and is subject to some statistical noise (though the average annual sample size is over 1,400). Further, trust has been declining for three decades, violent crime for two. The lag might simply be considerably longer than two years, maybe closer to ten, something that is unfortunately not testable using the GSS. But it would've been neat if it clearly supported the theory, which it does not do.
GSS variables used: YEAR, TRUST(1-2)