On trust

Love all, trust a few, / Do wrong to none.

William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well, I.1

Among the many crises that beset the modern world is a crisis of trust, or so we are told. People are losing their trust in the institutions of government, in corporations, even in the pronouncements of scientists. This is generally held to be a bad thing. But is it?

It’s undoubtedly true that a certain baseline level of trust has to exist in order for society to function. Money, for example, only works on the basis that everyone believes that these particular pieces of paper have value. Families and friendships can only hold together on the basis of mutual trust, and the loss of it is Kryptonite to any relationship. Without trust, there can be no love.

The cause of trust has not been helped by the economising mindset, which frames all human relations as a set of transactions in which the other party is always trying to do you down. Of course hardly anyone really sees the world like this, even economists, apart from paranoid schizophrenics. (Revealingly, perhaps, this was the affliction of the economist John Nash, subject of the movie A Beautiful Mind.) But it encourages distrust of others. So also does the fact that so many people live among strangers. This has always tended to be the case in cities, which have historically had a high turnover of population, but only comparatively recently has urban living become the majority lifestyle.

Trust creates the possibility of betrayal. In politics, a leader will inspire loyalty only up to the point that they can be trusted. A striking example of this from recent history is Margaret Thatcher. You knew where you were with Mrs T. You might not like it, but you knew. She had her principles, and she stuck to them.

The contrast with our current leadership in the UK is either comic or tragic, depending on your point of view. The excitement du jour happens to be about flouting of the rules concerning lockdown at the height of the pandemic, but they’ve flouted pretty much every other rule as well, awarding lucrative contracts to their mates, breaching their own code of conduct without repercussions, and even violating international treaties which they had themselves negotiated. The only principle they seem to believe in is that they can do what the hell they like because nothing will ever happen to them.

This kind of thinking has been seen before, and it rarely has a happy ending. The ancien régime in pre-Revolutionary France thought along those lines, for example, and how did that go?

It couldn’t happen here…

Governments need the consent of the governed. It is difficult to get or keep that consent if the governed can’t see anything in it for them. When nobody believes your promises, you are going to have a hard time of it. The same thing did for the Soviet Union, after all, which was a superpower not so long ago.

If someone is undeserving of trust, it makes sense for others to withdraw their trust. Nobody is surprised when someone leaves their partner after that partner has cheated on them. Indeed they would risk being thought a fool if they didn’t, if there were no other circumstances to be taken into consideration. Being mistrustful can often by a rational decision.

For wholesale abuse of the public trust has become commonplace, in a way that would never have been countenanced even a generation ago. For example, news media have always been the creatures of corporate interests to some extent, but these days the only way to get any idea of what is going on is to consume multiple disparate sources and triangulate from their known biases. And even that won’t tell you about the stuff that’s going on that they don’t want to publicise.

So people turn to the Internet. There are certainly plenty of alternative voices there, but which can you trust? Some of them are corporate shills, some are ideologues of various stripes, and others are just nutters. Sifting the wheat from the chaff is difficult, time-consuming and error-prone. Many people don’t have the time or the skills, and end up believing whatever’s in their feed for lack of anything else. But that doesn’t mean they’re completely gullible. There is a high level of background cynicism, and a good deal of it is justified.

One of the many sins of Donald J. Trump was that he drew attention to the omnipresence of “fake news.” I believe this is one of the things that struck a chord with the American public. Much of it is fake, of course, simply by being presented as if it were newsworthy. The world will not be a significantly different place if celebrity X marries (or divorces, or remarries) celebrity Y. The public interest is not the same thing as all the stuff the public is vaguely curious about. There’s a nice demonstration of this in the Netflix movie Don’t Look Up.

Another example is public trust in science, particularly as embodied by the pharmaceutical industry. You don’t have to be a tinfoil-hat-wearing anti-vaxxer to notice that the extravagant promises made about the various Covid-19 vaccines have not exactly been borne out. They don’t stop you catching it, they don’t stop you getting ill (although they may make you get less seriously ill), and they don’t stop you giving it to someone else. They jury is obviously still out on potential side-effects, particularly long-term ones, but it’s reasonable to expect that there will be at least some.

If people notice that they are being lied to, a loss of trust is the inevitable result. But the fault is with the liars. Trust has to be earned, and it is a good deal easier to lose than is to regain – rather like Louis XVI‘s head. Certain politicians might be well-advised to think about that.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

One thought on “On trust

  1. “these days the only way to get any idea of what is going on is to consume multiple disparate sources and triangulate from their known biases.”–This is brilliant. Increasingly our media outlets have been telling us what to think. Prime time news anchors inserting their own opinions into the retelling of the news. This has been a real shame.


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