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Investigating the Roots of Civic Morality: Trust, Social Capital, and Institutional Performance

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Abstract

In the last decade considerable research in social sciences has focused on interpersonal trust, treating it as a remedy for most maladies modern democracies suffer from. Yet, if others act dishonestly, trust is turned into gullibility, thus mechanisms linking interpersonal trust with institutional success refer implicitly to honesty and civic morality. This paper investigates the roots of civic morality. It applies hierarchical models to data from 38 countries, and tests the individual, community and structural explanatory factors. The results of the analysis point to the relevance of an institutional dimension, both in the form of individuals’ perceptions as well as the quality of governance: confidence in political institutions and their objective quality are the strongest predictors of civic morality. At the same time, the findings show that the recently popular claims about the importance of social capital for citizens’ moral standards are largely unfounded.

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Notes

  1. It should be noted here that cross-national individual-level research demonstrates a powerful self-selection effect, as people who join groups are already more trusting than the rest of the population (Stolle, 1998).

  2. This is often called “institutional trust”, however, the significance of the distinction between trust and confidence in institutions is convincingly discussed by Hardin: “there is a widely held view that government needs the trust of citizens if it is to work well ... but the more recent view of the role of trust can make sense only if by trust is meant essentially confidence and, perhaps, some element of cooperativeness. Government might need this much if it is to gain citizen compliance with sometimes hard laws, such as those concerning taxes and conscription” (2000, p. 35, see also Offe, 1999).

  3. It is possible that citizens perceive agency’s actions that are impartial, efficient and bring maximum benefit as legitimizing, but at the same time citizens who perceive the agency as legitimate (because, for example, they have voted it into power), will evaluate its performance more favorably. Either way, we expect a positive and reinforcing relationship between institutional performance and legitimacy, and thus a positive effect of performance and its perceptions on attitudes to compliance.

  4. To explain circumstanced under which individuals are willing to break the rules and “quit the game”, Hibbing and Alford refer to people’s natural aversion to being “played for a sucker” (Hibbing & Alford, 2004).

  5. While the argument about the causality of the link between cultural variables and institutional characteristics has not been definitely resolved, there is a growing body of literature supporting a “top-down” approach. See Freitag, 2006; Letki and Evans, 2005; Muller and Seligson, 1994; Rose-Ackerman, 2001a.

  6. The sample of countries used results from the combination the availability of empirical indicators and a democratic character of a given country. Since some of the questions used were politically sensitive, data collected in countries without at least minimal guarantees of the freedom of speech could not be considered reliable. Therefore, only countries scoring 0 or higher on the Polity index were included in the final analysis.

  7. For the discussion of Latin America, see Tulchin and Espach, 2000, for East-Central Europe: Kotkin and Sajó, 2002. For an analysis of corruption and organized crime related challenges to governance, see Rose-Ackerman, 1999.

  8. The regions are based on the WVS sampling design, where random selection of sampling points was carried out, with a number of points being drawn from all administrative regional units after stratification by region and degree of urbanization. Therefore, 392 regions in this paper represent the existing administrative units.

  9. See http://www.worldbank.org/data/.

  10. Principal Investigators: Monty G. Marshall and Keith Jaggers, Project Director: Monty G. Marshall, Founding Director: Ted Robert Gurr. See http://www.cidcm.umd.edu/inscr/polity/.

  11. See http://www.worldbank.org/wbi/governance/data.html.

  12. The coding of all questions was reversed and “don’t know” answers were recoded to the middle of the scale (6). As a result, “always justifiable” was coded “1” and “never justifiable” was coded “11”.

  13. A similar index using data from 1990 edition of the World Values Survey was called an “index of civic cooperation” by Knack and Keefer (1997). I believe that the index captures values (honesty) and attitudes (respect for law) rather than behavior, and while these values and attitudes may have a positive influence on cooperation, they do not necessary imply any cooperative activities. Therefore, I call it an “Index of Civic Morality”.

  14. The question asked whether the respondent is an active or inactive member. However, preliminary analysis showed that pooling these two categories together does not produce results different than keeping them separately, therefore respondents were divided into two main groups: members and non-members.

  15. Coding of the scale was reversed, so that “none at all” was coded as 1, and “don’t know” answers were recoded into the middle of the scale. Principal component analysis of those 6 items detected one dimension, explaining 51.8% of the total variance; the Cronbach’s Alpha for this scale is .684. For details, see Table 4 in the Appendix.

  16. Education was coded into tree categories: “lower” (up to the level of elementary and basic vocational education), “medium” (secondary and intermediate education) and “upper” (higher education). For income, national income variables were recoded into three categories: “lower”, “middle” and “upper” so that each category would comprise of the third of the sample (Inglehart, Basanez, & Menendez Moreno, 1998).

  17. Variable referring to religiosity captures frequency of participation in religious services and ranges from “never” (1) to more than once a week (7).

  18. On the basis of his analysis of social capital Seligson argues convincingly that including established Western democracies in cross-national analysis often results in a serious bias and overestimation of the significance of tested relationships (Seligson, 2002).

  19. Data entries for all indicators come from the year preceding the year in which survey was conducted in a given country. If the data for this specific year was unavailable, it was replaced by the earlier available entry. Entries for each country have been presented in Table 5 in the Appendix.

  20. In the present sample of countries Moldova has the lowest level of unemployment, which is more likely to indicate slow pace of economic reforms than a particularly effective economy.

  21. For the detailed information on the project, see http://www.worldbank.org/wbi/governance/index.html.

  22. The proportion of total variance explained by variation at particular levels is also an estimate of intra-cluster correlations at these levels, which in this case are .073 at the country level and .152 at the regional level. This further confirms that there is asignificant degree of clustering within countries and regions, which should not be ignored.

  23. This is calculated using the reduction of the individual-level variance in model 3.1 in comparison with Table 2, where 3.528 in Table 3 constitutes 100% of individual-level variance.

  24. Whether these variables are entered individually or as a “block” has no effect on the results.

  25. The −2*log-likelihood decreased from 195528.600 (model 3.1) to 195347.200 (model 3.2), a difference of 181.4. This difference can be regarded as a χ2 value with 3 degrees of freedom (three new parameters), and as such it is highly statistically significant.

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Acknowledgements

This paper benefited from comments by Christina W. Andrews, Geoff Evans, Christopher Garner, Sharon Gilad, Jane Green, Mark A. Kayser, Lauren McLaren, Bo Rothstein, Chris Wlezien and participants of the “Quality of Government: What It Is, How to Get It, Why It Matters” Conference, Göteborg, November 17–19, 2005. I would also like to thank the three anonymous Reviewers and the Editors for their insightful comments.

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Correspondence to Natalia Letki.

Appendix

Appendix

Table 4 Indicators of Confidence in Institutions (N = 47210)
Table 5 Country-Level Indicators of Institutional Performance (N = 38)
Table 6 Indicators of Quality of Government (N = 38)

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Letki, N. Investigating the Roots of Civic Morality: Trust, Social Capital, and Institutional Performance. Polit Behav 28, 305–325 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-006-9013-6

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