Minimum Viable Trust

“I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn what they have accomplished for their working people”

That’s a quote from Bernie Sanders from an October 2015 presidential primary debate.

President Trump is alleged to have said, in a closed meeting, that he wants more immigrants from places like Norway, instead of “shithole” countries. That quote was leaked to the press so whether or not he said it is reasonably debatable. Whether it reflects the administration’s immigration policy choices is not.

My point in bringing up both quotes is that there is some consistent opinion from differing political perspectives that places like Denmark and Norway are places to emulate. Denmark, is after all, the happiest country in the world according to people who track that sort of thing. When we American’s live in a country founded on the right to pursue happiness, it’s not unreasonable to believe that benchmarking happy places is a worthy activity.

Alas, striving to be like Denmark is a hopeless cause though. As political scientist Francis Fukuyama points out, getting to Denmark societally by doing the things that Denmark has done requires that one start in Denmark. And by Denmark, I mean at a minimum, a metaphorical Denmark that draws on an endless bounty of social trust; that thing that enables people to trust other people, corporations and governments because they’ve got reason to believe they have the common good in mind.

Installing social trust in America has been a bit of a journey. We didn’t after all, start in Denmark. We started with a rebellion against absolute rule, state sanctioned racial slavery, segregation and inequality and at least eight different regional cultures. I recommend Colin Woodard’s fantastic book American Nations if you want to read more on those cultures. LINK

The one result that’s come from America’s asymmetrical start has been an uphill climb for establishing social trust. We Americans are inherently untrusting to the extent that it makes things that ought not be hard, hard. Woven into our culture is an insistence not to do things we know are good for us simply because someone told us to do them. Paying into a healthcare insurance pool for instance becomes a terrible idea as soon as one has to do it. When one doesn’t have to, it’s a great idea.

The Denmarks of the world miss the folksy charm in that logic.

Over centuries though, America has built institutions and held to some consistent values that have enabled us to construct what I like to refer to as a Minimum Viable Trust. That MVT has been enough to keep us moving and progressing slowly, painfully homogenizing into something that one day may resemble one common good that enables us to pool resources and will to solve common problems when we must. It’s something we do well when it involves fighting wars. Less so for other things…at least yet.

When evaluating the performance of representative governments, I think an important aspect, beyond how consistently they effectively execute the duties of government as well as represent political ideology, is their impact to MVT. It doesn’t take much to knock us asymmetrically untrusting Americans off kilter and send us spiraling into civic paralysis. Improving on our woeful level of trust in government, corporations and each other by way of governing within a rule of law that incentivizes such behavior isn’t an after thought. It’s a principle.

How’s that going these days?

The Weak State Myth

Dunbar’s Number is 150. That’s the number of people anthropologist Robin Dunbar claims we humans can maintain social relationships with based on our cognitive limits. Dunbar calculated that number from the ratio of the size of the human neocortex—the part of the brain responsible for higher thought function in mammals—to the size of the rest of our brain. Continue reading