The Breakdown of Social Trusting

An American political framework might look like this:

One faction advocating that those with agency over others must recognize their responsibility and act in good faith, sustainably so, and make decisions that benefit not only themselves, but the broader society as a whole. This may include pursuing their own interests as competition driving development is an accompanying belief. That view holds that there should be little coercion required to accomplish that end and therefore limits on personal liberties only serve to stifle dynamism.

The other faction aims to identify asymmetries between groups that yield disproportionately high levels of agency for some, and disproportionately low for others. That group advocates for changes, through government or other social action, to the institutions that are responsible for the asymmetry in agency.

In theory, both factions should be able to exist with reasonable friction. Both sides believe that agency over one’s own outcomes is the goal. Both aim to enhance the benefits of agency. Both believe that agency comes with privilege and responsibility.

This framework is, of course, a naive one. It doesn’t really work that way, though it should. Naive frameworks are useful though. They help expose why a thing could be a way but isn’t. As best as I can tell, the application of the framework breaks down because of two assumptions that feed on each other and throw the balance of discourse off.

The first is that not all people behave with good intent towards society as a whole. The second is the lack of trust between factions that the first assumption yields.

When too many that behave outside the bounds of good societal intent assume agency over others, the levels of trust between factions lowers. The goal is for social trust to exist within a band of reasonable discourse. We’ll always believe that others are simply out for themselves or maybe for even worse nihilist causes. But we believe they don’t have enough power to drive the direction of society. Therefore our trust, though measured, stays within the acceptable band.

Both the appeal and the truly harmful characteristic of Trump-ism is that it aims to expose a reality that everyone is a fraud. And though flawed, the leader of the message is at least honest about it, and therefore can be the only trustable person.

This view perpetuates a toxic environment of distrust. Nothing can be trusted. Not the media. Not the intelligence community. Not the Justice Department. Not the courts. And not Congress. Though we already believed we couldn’t trust congress, the others are new. We’re now far outside our acceptable band of social trust. And so we shouldn’t be expected to function effectively as a free and open society.

The following belief is important:

Not everyone is a fraud. And few people rise to positions of power who care only for themselves and not a sustainable, harmonious society. They may get the details and actions wrong, but not the intent.

True or not, when we don’t believe that any more, it allows us to tolerate, in plain sight, those that don’t hold the standard. There is no positive end to a free and open society where we don’t have basic trust for those in power.

One question to ask is, what is the goal of sowing so much distrust?

An effectively functioning society can’t be the answer. So what is it?