How Trust (Or The Lack Of It) Affects America's Trajectory

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by Tyler Durden
Monday, Apr 22, 2024 - 09:00 AM


America’s trust in its institutions has rapidly eroded over the past 20 years.

We have a lower level of trust in our judicial system and elections than most European countries. Some of this is natural, as Americans are uniquely individualistic, but much of it arises from repeated government failures.

Americans generally believe that public trust can be brought back to full vigor, but the current trend of decline has not slowed. While governmental distrust is often well-grounded, a concerning increase in distrust has been seen among citizens. America’s ever-dwindling amount of freedom originally thrust great responsibility onto the citizens. With less institutional control, citizens had to both act with goodwill and hold the expectation that their countrymen were beneficent. More free-market solutions meant that citizens had to trust word of mouth and relationships rather than institutional certification. The most basic building blocks of industry would have ceased to function if Americans had refused to trust one another. The shared pursuit of individual aims under an institutional framework that explicitly limited itself arguably created more willing cooperation than any other civilization. Some have credited this high level of trust to America’s relative cultural homogeneity at the time of its founding. While a more similar cultural and religious background certainly aided the budding country, ingenuity and prosperity arose from the diversity that freedom created. Americans were able to trust one another and their institutions even as they thought and worshiped differently. America’s rejection of its trust-filled past can both reform our institutions and destroy our strength of commerce.

Trust’s ability to allow trade between strangers has been slowly encroached upon by government licensing agencies. In the past, individuals could simply ask a friend whether a cosmetologist or barber was competent. The reputational costs of being a poor barber would not allow horrid haircuts to continue. Individuals would simply stop paying, and the “barber” would have to seek a more fitting profession. The great increase in professional licenses has replaced personal trust with governmental approval. In a self-reinforcing cycle, licenses keep being created and untrusting consumers are glad to see more professions licensed. Licensing processes often give valuable skills, but those same skills would have been sought out regardless if they were truly valuable. While the recent increase in licensing and certification is partially due to the recent population growth of bureaucrats, it also reflects the attitude of the American publicMoral degradation has made many citizens unworthy of trust, and they see the same worrisome tendencies in citizens around them. Certifications and licenses act as a bandage to the severely injured state of national trust. The reason such measures are only a bandage rather than a treatment is that trust will never be fully replaceable. Its versatility allows it to smooth interactions between industries and people far more delicately than regulation could ever hope to. Nonetheless, trust continues to be replaced as many individuals find more security in the choices of bureaucrats they will never even hear the names of.

An immobile and ancient boundary post stands in the way of governmental encroachment. Individual distrust of government urged Americans to revolt from Britain, and it remains a challenge to the desires of bureaucrats and the fears of those who would be regulated. Just as distrust of other citizens damages free commerce, so also distrust of government damages its ability to control. This distrust manifests itself in the ballot box, civic monitoring of governmental activity, and the accrual of assets not tied to governmental control. Distrusters can look above the pandering of bread and circuses to investigate what self-serving inefficiency is masked behind. While its coercive power remains regardless of the actions of individual citizens, distrust cripples one of the government’s strongest means of control: information. When government-given information is put under scrutiny truth can be cherished more strongly and falsehood can be promptly discarded. The opinion of whichever government employee wrote a specific piece of “objective information” can be drawn out of it through careful analysis. Those who have complete trust in the government enter a self-reinforcing cycle which makes it ever harder for their minds to break the grasp of state control.

Trust in other citizens and trust in the state may appear similar at first glance, but they lead to vastly different national outcomes. Rejecting goodwill and cooperation directly before our eyes in favor of faceless security will lead to economic and national ruin. No amount of regulation can ever replace the goodwill and trust that is at the core of American identity and success.