ISER Working Paper Series 2006-31
Does democracy foster trust?
01 Jul 2006
In 1990, East and West Germany were reunited after more than four decades of separation. Before reunification, East Germans were governed by a communist regime that systematically violated the basic rights of many citizens. The freedom that people had was further undermined by the German Democratic Republic's State Security Service ('Stasi'). The Stasi kept files on an estimated six million people, and built up a network of civilian informants ('unofficial collaborators'), who monitored politically incorrect behaviour among other citizens. Since reunification, East Germans have experienced life in a market-based democracy, an environment West Germans had experienced since 1945.
This paper examines whether the levels of social and institutional trust have changed in response to the reunification of Germany. Our main aim is to understand how individuals' trust in other people and in legal and political institutions are shaped by the political regime in which they live.
We begin by asking whether the communist rule in East Germany affected individuals' social and institutional trust. To investigate this, we make the identifying assumption that East and West Germany were indistinguishable until the exogenously imposed separation in 1945. Thus, if one observes different levels of trust between East and West Germans shortly after reunification, one can attribute them to the opposing political, economic and social histories in the two parts of Germany.
Using data from the German General Social Survey (ALLBUS), we find that individuals who lived under communism in East Germany are much more likely to distrust other people, legal institutions, and political authorities than individuals who lived under democracy in West Germany.
Having established this, we then ask whether the experience of democracy by East Germans since reunification served to increase levels of trust. Given the repressive character of the communist rule, it might be expected that democracy encouraged trust by a process of disassociation from the communist past. Indeed, whatever else the new democratic environment was, it was certainly not communist or communist controlled. We find that being moved from a repressive communist regime (with low collective levels of social trust) to a liberal democratic system (with comparatively high collective levels of social trust) does not lead to more social trust. To put it differently, there are no complementarities between democracy per se and attitudes towards social trust in East Germany.
In trying to understand the underlying causes, we show that the culture of persistent social distrust in the East can be explained by the economic and social inequalities that have troubled many East Germans in the post-reunification period. Interestingly, and in sharp contrast to social trust, we also find that the levels of institutional trust in the East significantly converge towards those in the West.