A well argued and documented post at VoxEU seems glaringly at odds with recent experience in the US. “How the long-gone Habsburg Empire is still visible in Eastern European bureaucracies today,” by Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Woessmann looks at the territories formerly occupied by the Habsburg Empire, which had a well run and fairly honest bureaucracy, particularly in contrast to the other major powers that were influential at various points in Eastern Europe (the Ottoman Empire and Imperial Russia). The authors identified five modern countries in which the Habsburgs had once occupied only a portion of their territory. They limited their analysis to populations living within 200 kilometers of the long-ago imperial border.
Our results suggest that the Habsburg Empire is indeed still visible in the cultural norms and interactions of humans with their state institutions today. Comparing individuals left and right of the long-gone Habsburg border, people living in locations that used to be territory of the Habsburg Empire have higher trust in courts and police. These trust differentials also transform into “real” differences in the extent to which bribes have to be paid for these local public services.
We complement these main findings by looking into a series of additional aspects.
First, our results are robust when restricting the comparison groups to formerly Ottoman regions (instead of any non-Habsburg Empire).
Second and interestingly, the Habsburg effect does not vary systematically with the duration of Habsburg affiliation, consistent with models that predict persistent effects of limited exposure.
Third, we analyse whether Habsburg exposure fostered trust levels in state institutions in general, i.e. also in central public institutions like the president or the parliament. We find no significant evidence of such effects, suggesting that it was the local interaction with bureaucrats that was key.
Finally, evidence from a firm dataset, the Business Environment and Enterprise Performance Survey, corroborates the general pattern of results derived from the household dataset. That is, firms on the Habsburg side of the long-gone border within the same country have higher trust in the courts.
The authors also cite other examples of long-lived impact of good governance, for instance, that differences in levels of interpersonal trust in northern versus southern Italy can be attributed to how free city-states were administered at the close of the first millennium.
This sort of durability no doubt seems inconceivable to Americans, particularly since this country not that long ago (certainly the mid 1930s through the mid 1960s) had a highly level of trust in government, and the slide into open and widespread corruption has been a comparatively recent phenomenon. But the US has also been a staging ground of an orchestrated campaign to sow distrust in government, and you can breed dysfunctional and underperforming institutions pretty quickly if you set about it.
One of the issues that seems implicit in the Becker and Woessmann post is that despite a very long span of time, communities in Europe are stable enough to retain a local cultural over very long periods of time. By contrast, with so much of America being transient, and comparatively-recently created suburbs being such an important part of housing stock, many municipalities have shallow roots. In addition, as colleague and guest poster Doug Smith has pointed out in his book On Value and Values, the old intermediate forms of social organization in the US, which not long ago were almost entirely community based, have been replaced by organizations, many of which are not local.
So does this lack of strong local anchors give America its vaunted innovativeness, but also less ability to maintain social values, in particular high levels of trust? Reader input encouraged.