Two-Faced Trust

Trust is the unspoken assumption in discussions of public policy. So what is trust?

Trust can work two ways, as faith (a belief based on the insubstantial, the future and other truths placed offstage) and as considered belief based on onstage facts and past experience. Like many troublesome English words, these ideas are opposites, but they share the same short and slippery designation. Call them, for this essay, faith-trust and fact-trust.

So, when the mother has just heard her son is in jail for car theft and break and enter, she might say, “He couldn’t have done that, he’s a good boy, I trust him completely,” and the newspapers will dutifully repeat this but no-one thinks it is evidence of anything. She may be right, she may be wrong, but her motherhood mandates that faith-trust will rule her public speech, if not her private doubts.

Conversely, when I set out to cross a footbridge, I calculate whether it will support me based on my previous experience with construction materials, my observation of this specific bridge, my knowledge of my own weight (don’t ask), and by watching other people and vehicles crossing the bridge before I do. When I choose to cross, I may be right, or I may end up in the river (because trust is all about making guesses about consequences) but I have used a totally different form of “trust” in making that choice.

At this point I imagine you are asking what this has to do with economics and governance. Answer: it is the hidden element that explains a lot of inexplicable public choices.

The Bush administration was a secretive bunch who pushed over their 8 years to stow more and more information into hidden places, whether via “national security” classification or black-site jails or offshore prisons or even lost-destroyed e-mail messages and videos.

Why did many people accept all this secrecy? The hidden element, never spoken out loud, was: “They do this to protect the USA – we trust them.” Which trust-twin is this one? Faith-trust.

Take another example: the conduct of the police, with or without Tasers. In spite of some apparently blatant misuse of their power they are virtually never convicted of assault, murder, manslaughter etc. Also, in court their testimony is given weight far beyond the average witness, when a little thought would wonder if this is justified. It seems to me a large element of faith-trust is present here, too.

And then there is the problem of trust accorded to clergy.

Now secrecy, prevarication and promise breaking are, sadly, all necessary elements of governance, whether good governance or bad. Use of force is an essential part of police practice, and religious practitioners work in a realm between worlds, where confidentiality and metaphorical, story-based thought are central, and divine logic can appear to run counter to the worldly.

Given these necessities, how are we to differentiate honest stewards and good guardians from plutocrats and well-spoken thugs? And how, in self-defense, do we detect and detach ourselves from the injurious objects of our faith-trust?

And then there is the other side of faith-trust – faith-distrust. How do we examine the things we have demonized – or which have been demonized for us – and reclaim them if we discover we have been wrong?

Fear and hatred are often called “only human,” but this is not true. Our animal cousins share with us the capacity for fear and anger. Very few things, in fact, are “only human.” Fear is useful to us and our cousins alike, because we learn from it.

But there’s a problem. As the old saying goes, “The cat, once burned, stays off hot stoves. The trouble is, he stays off all stoves.”

In the Tea Party movement, we see the “all stoves” response to government. Having spent a generation, from Reagan onwards, with a government that told them over and over that “government is the problem, not the solution,” while proving this point by changes in law and regulation that squeezed them and removed many protections, they now have fully formed faith-distrust of anything called government.

The problem is that only government, good government, has the power and mandate to correct the maltreatment of bad government. Not business, not finance, not private militias, not NGOs, not churches – only government. Their faith-distrust cuts them off from the primary lifeboat — however leaky it may be — that can get them clear of the wreck.

Fact-trust is one of the elements of humanity that we can call “only human.” To stand outside our own fears and use our minds to judge and our will to go against our habits and prejudices, is a very uncommon and very human skill. Fact-trust is less rigid than faith-trust, and is subject to constant recalibration. But it is the only guide that will equip the maltreated US public to choose correctly and comprehend the shell game they’ve been drawn into.

Whoever feeds you falsehoods feeds you poison, and whoever undercuts fact-trust and replaces it with faith-trust is blinkering and hobbling you, reducing your “only-humanity.”. Faith-trust is not always injurious, but itself must be subject to scrutiny on a regular basis. And what form might that scrutiny take?

I suggest another old saying: “By their fruits shall ye know them.”

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