I’ve been a member of very close-knit emotional groups at various points in my life, and I’ve also been members of considerably cooler, less trusting groups, for example businesses. I’ve also been in relationships where I have completely trusted the other person — relationships where I could say the most disgusting, embarrassing, personal secrets of my heart and my body — and I’ve been in relationships where the trust has been more measured and modulated, ones where I have shared my opinions about movies but would not share my opinions about God or idiosyncratic sex.
This last election has made me think about the human need for trust. If you look at the behavior of Trump voters it is paradoxical. They do not trust the media, they do not trust coastal elites, they do not trust the future, they do not trust immigrants and foreigners. But they do trust Trump.
I think, based on my own experience, that human beings have a need to trust. I think it is baked in to us as children. We can’t take care of ourselves, so we must trust to survive. And this is a full-on trust — we trust, do not hide anything, and stake our lives on trust. It is a blissful experience to trust, and to be trusted.
But modern institutions are based on a much cooler, thinner sort of trust. As Adam Smith wrote, it is not because I trust the benevolence of my baker that I expect bread in the morning. I expect bread in the morning because I trust the baker to act in his own self-interests. But I do not trust the baker with my heart.
Although the bread provided in this way may feed us, this sort of relationship with the baker does not. People hunger for relationships in which they can place their trust.
People seek out high-trust communities such as churches or authoritarian families when they don’t trust the outside world. And this in turn makes the outside world more frightening and the future more frightening. And this is of course exacerbated by betrayal, when for example a factory is moved overnight to China or Mexico.
To fix this mess we need to practice trust. Not just instrumentally — although in fact if we don’t trust each other we have little chance of succeeding as a country — but as a good itself.
Step by step because trust builds trust.