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Should We Be Trusting Complete Strangers?

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My mother, as I’m sure yours did, taught me to “Never Trust A Stranger”.

But in the long march of human development, progress occurs only in an environment of trust.  An environment of largely unearned trust at that.

Limiting our trust only to our circle of family, friends and colleagues would severely limit our ability to progress as a species; in order to progress we find we must at some point trust complete and total strangers.

Strangers we will never meet, see, speak with, nor perhaps even speak the same language or have the same god or politics.  Strangers we cannot directly hold accountable.  And strangers whose own best interests often differ from ours.

Think I’m wrong?  Consider…

It’s trust that allows us to leave our homes each day in order to increase our productivity beyond what we could achieve if we felt we had to personally and constantly defend our property against our possessions being taken or destroyed in our absence.

It’s trust that allows us to go forth in public unarmed and to move about at high rates of speed in small, crowded spaces in large metal machines among others who are more and more distracted from the task of controlling their machine.

It’s trust that allows us to trade our time and skills for wages paid in a fiat (non-backed) currency represented by nothing more than digital 1s and 0s stored on a hard drive in some stranger’s machine.  That not being bad enough itself, we have to first trust we will receive the wages, and secondly be able to trust that others will accept our currency in trade for their goods and services.

It’s trust that allows us to put food and water in our bodies that we ourselves did not grow, kill, or collect.  Food that often comes from thousands of miles away; grown, processed, stored and transported using all manner of chemicals, processes both sanitary and not, along with water treated in large chemical plants, pumped to our homes through decades old pipes and stored in containers made by foreigners paid slave wages so you can have a water bottle or a hot water heater.

It’s trust that allows us to engage in, enjoy, and enhance the social nature of mankind among complete strangers in public places we know nothing about structurally.  Ever wondered about that bridge you’re sitting on while stuck in traffic, or whether that building you’re in is sound?  No?  It’s trust that allows you do that.

It’s trust that allows us to turn over our children each day – almost from birth – to complete strangers working in religious or government-controlled institutions for their care and education.

It’s trust that allows us to trust one stranger to trust another stranger to trust another stranger, and so on in the new global economy and supply chain.  Do you trust that all those in the chain can be trusted?

And it’s trust that allows us to place ever more of the responsibility for our wellbeing in the hands of religious, political, judicial/law enforcement, financial, health care, educational, and military leaders. 

Yes, if we want to progress we have to give our unearned trust to complete strangers. And a LOT of it at that.

If fact, if you really think about it, our entire system is built on nothing more than UNEARNED TRUST.

Fortunately, for the most part in historical terms and time scales, we’re all in the same boat.  Even among strangers and multi-party, global relationships, this “we sink or swim together” reality reinforces the likelihood that our trust will not be betrayed and we won’t be harmed for having extended our trust.  Yet, in the back of my mind I can’t help but think this is not real trust as much as it is an unsaid, “Don’t screw me and I won’t screw you”.  I guess the most cynical among us would say that’s all trust really is anyway, but I don’t think so.  Real trust – the kind I have with my wife or my best friend – is not based on a mutual need to avoid getting screwed.  If that’s all there is stop the planet now, I want to get off.

But what happens when unearned trust is destroyed?  As in, when we wake up one day to realize we ARE getting screwed.  We regress of course.  As in, as a species we go backwards more than we move forward.  Sometimes we regress imperceptibly.  Sometimes we regress rapidly.  And sometimes we regress violently.

As trust breaks down and people realize they are getting screwed they begin to take actions they otherwise wouldn’t (they become fearful, guarded, less open to commit to helping others or engaging in business, etc.).  This causes a further breakdown in trust which creates further breakdowns.  This is what’s called a ‘positive feedback loop’, where the breakdown itself causes and reinforces a furthering of the breakdown in both depth and breadth.  It’s like a cancer that eats away at the very core of human progress and civilization, leading us away from “Don’t screw me and I won’t screw you,” to “Better to screw you before you screw me.”

Now it seems to me a natural, mathematical certainty that the more unearned trust we place in ever-further-removed strangers (often of ever more dubious character who continually amass ever more power and money), the more likely we are to have our trust misused, abused, and destroyed. 

It also seems the more complex and further reaching our trust-based relationships are, the larger and more widespread the damage would be if these relationships break down.  There is precedent for this, in fact.  The trigger that set off the GLOBAL financial crisis in 2008 was the DIRECT result of a HANDFUL banks losing trust in other banks to repay them or make good on collateral pledged for overnight loans (called repo agreements).  What started with ONE bank not trusting ONE other bank snowballed in a feedback loop that eventually – rather quickly in fact – ensnared the entire planet.  The interesting thing is that we got to where we were just before the crash BECAUSE of the over-extension of unearned trust, which then led to a complete breakdown in trust.  And look where that’s gotten us six years on.

Having had our trust broken – and having done so in the light of day, at the speed of the Internet, and with literally ZERO repercussions to those who betrayed us – it’s no wonder we’re more divided than ever.  Main Street doesn’t trust Wall Street, Wall Street doesn’t trust Main Street.  The people don’t trust the government, and the government certainly doesn’t trust the people (yes, NSA, TSA, DHS, and HHS, I am looking at you).  Large groups of __________ people don’t trust other large groups of __________ people.  Corporations don’t trust their employees, and the employees don’t trust their employers.  Nations don’t trust one another.  And on and on it goes. 

Seemingly every day we hear a new story about how this company lied, or that politician lied, or this country’s leader lied to that country’s leader, or a teacher lied to her students, or a husband lied to his wife, or a cop lied to a jury, or a religious lied to his flock, and on and on.  And yet, no one is held accountable.  Not in any significant way.

Just yesterday it hit the news that two cops and an entire hospital medical staff sexually assaulted (read: raped) an innocent man multiple times for over eight hours, then upon releasing him sent him a $6,000 bill for his troubles.  Hope he has Obamacare.  Ha!

Scroll back up and reread that list.  Go read some news.  And then tell me, do you think trust is being destroyed?

And what does this say or portend for a system built ENTIRELY on the UNEARNED trust of STRANGERS?

It tells me we’re a bunch of freakin’ idiots and ignorant fools for not having listened to our mothers when they beat it into us to never, ever, trust a stranger.

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