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  • Victor Bolles

How Trust Works

I haven't posted a blog recently because I have been working furiously on my new book, Edifice of Trust, which I hope to publish in September. I will be posting some excerpts from the upcoming book in the coming weeks. I look forward to receiving your comments and critiques because they will help improve the book enormously. Here is the first excerpt.

How Trust Works

The edifice of the American Social Contract and its Free Market Economic System is built with bricks of trust. When we interact with fellow citizens we trust that we will be treated with respect and dignity. When we purchase a product or service we trust that the product is safe and healthy and that the service is as advertised.

However, because we are all human not all of our fellow citizens can live up to the level of trust that we extend to others and rightfully expect in return. Some people may not be capable of interacting at this level because of some physical or mental disability. Some may violate our trust due to unusual and temporary circumstances much like Le Miserables’ Jean Valjean’s initial crime of stealing bread for his starving family. Then there are people that don’t trust others or believe in the social contract between citizens. These people will violate our trust for personal gain and try to distort the social contract to their advantage. The elite of the world seem to believe that the rules do not apply to them and suspicious people justify their actions by the supposed transgressions of others (because they assume others to have the same evil intentions that they have).

Sometimes we ourselves fail to live up to our own standards in our dealings with others. Then we try to rationalize our failings by pointing to our upbringing, education, experiences or other factors. But we are only human and these lapses occur from time to time. We can only hope to man up to our shortcomings, be forgiven and have an opportunity to re-earn the trust of our fellow citizens.

In a small, tight community we know all of our fellow citizens and their strengths and weaknesses. In a strong community we know who to trust, who to forgive and who to wary of. In a small community, unworthy behavior is met with distrust and the unworthy individual will have a hard time living and working with his fellow citizens. In a huge country like the United States it is impossible to know everyone. It is impossible to forge the bonds of trust with so many millions. It is the job of government to build this edifice of trust.

Tribal Trust

Generally, we trust what we know and distrust what we don’t know. In a small community it is possible to know all the individuals and to know which ones to trust. People from other communities or tribes are inherently distrusted until a bond of trust is established between the two groups. These bonds of trust are developed slowly by first extending trust in certain limited situations and then deciding if that extension of trust was justified.

Extending trust is a risky action. You don’t know if the other person is trustworthy. It is easy to be deceived. So trust develops slowly over time and can be easily lost by a single disappointment. Small tribal communities are homogenous. The people speak the same language, they look and dress similarly (they are likely to be related), and they generally perceive the world in a similar way (they have a common culture and/or religion).

In a tribal culture, the bond of trust only extends to other members of the tribe. Interactions with other tribes are done very carefully and conflict is very common. This is one reason why the Mideast has had such a difficult time in building democratic nation states. Tribal culture is very strong in the Middle East and the national borders established by France and England after the First World War often crisscrossed tribal lands without regard to the people living there. There are no bonds of trust between these squabbling tribes so the Middle Eastern nations require a strong man with an iron fist to keep the fractious tribes from going after each other. Egypt quickly retreated from its experiment with democracy and Turkey appears to be going the same direction.

Inclusive Trust

Extending trust to other communities thus encounters barriers such as language, dress or culture that must be overcome in order for trust to develop. In the Middle East these barriers have not been overcome. If one tribe or culture is dominant all the other tribes must be subordinate. They are outside the circle of trust that the dominant tribal members share and are literally second-class citizens.

A democratic nation cannot function this way. The bonds of trust must be extended to all trustworthy citizens despite barriers of culture or language. The conundrum of the United States is that is has done this both poorly and well at basically the same time. The US has been able to absorb millions upon millions of immigrants from many different countries and cultures and to gradually incorporate them into the circle of trust. Despite early discrimination and hardships Polish, Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants have been brought into the circle of trust. For blacks and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Hispanics it has been another story.

The summer of 2016 has shown us the consequences of non-inclusive trust. People excluded from the circle of trust for whatever reason build their own circle of trust within their own community. This is one reason why gangs flourish and police are feared in many black communities. They function as an alternative circle of trust for alienated black youth.

To extend the circle of trust to include blacks and Hispanics and Muslims and homosexuals and Lesbians and whoever else is out there will be risky and likely fraught with conflict. The de-escalation training and community involvement of the Dallas Police Department could not stop a lone gunman from assassinating five of its officers. After hundreds of years of exclusion there will be resistance from the black community (and other alienated communities) to building the necessary levels of trust to reach out to the larger society.

This is not a left or right issue. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. This is an American issue. The United States cannot become a welter of warring tribes of homogenous ethnicities or religions. We have principles that stand for something greater. We must embrace these principles, the American principles envisioned by our Founders, as a bridge to incorporate all those that believe in those principles.

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