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On Building, and Rebuilding, Trust

Concerns about trust have played a central role in my project’s discussions about money, credit, and debt. My panels, time and again, have said that our whole financial system, and indeed money itself, is based upon it: ‘The full faith and credit of the United States’. So I was wide-awake when I received an announcement for a series of discussions about trust in the DC area.

The flyer said that ‘trust is the social capital on which our democratic institutions depend’, that ‘lack of trust divides Americans over issues of politics, race, ethnicity, religion, and around social issues’, that ‘it keeps us from doing big things together and being our best as a country’, that ‘civility is important but it’s just a beginning’, and that ‘trustbuilding means honest conversation, acknowledgment of injustices and wrongs, apology, and a commitment to work together for a future of hope and opportunity for all’.

I fully agree that trust is a large part of the social capital upon which our democratic institutions depend—-and that a breakdown of trust currently divides Americans over many issues. I also agree that civility is just a beginning for building trust, and that honest conversation is very important. But I am far less clear that civility is actually necessary for building trust, or that building trust means honest conversation, acknowledgment of injustices and wrongs, apology, and a commitment to work together for a future of hope and opportunity for all. All of this may set a tone. But everything is what it is and nothing else. And ‘trust’ means a firm belief in the reliability, honesty, ability, or strength of someone or something.

It is only fifteen years since Francis Fukuyama characterized the United States as a high trust society—-and there can be little doubt that most Americans trust their government and their fellow citizens more than people do in many other countries. But an honest conversation about trust in the United States today would have to focus upon the fact that many Americans no longer have as firm a belief in the reliability, honesty, ability, and strength of their government and their fellow citizens as they once did­—-and with good reason.

The simple fact of the matter is that we have all become accustomed to, if not complacent with, a little bit of fraud­ in our government, our fellow citizens, and, indeed, ourselves. It is important to be honest about this. But being honest about it will not restore trust all by itself. Whether it is possible to restore trust in our society, and how to go about doing it, is an entirely different matter. It is a lot like trying to restore trust in a marriage that has been broken through infidelity. Ronald Reagan famously said ‘Trust, but verify!’ But my own sense is that restoring trust will probably depend a lot more upon what we do than upon what we say or how we say it.

It will depend, among other things, upon our government being honest with us, even when it cannot be entirely open with us—-and especially about being honest that it cannot be entirely open with us.

It will depend upon our political leaders showing us that they care more about our long-term welfare than about being reelected.

It will depend upon our businesses, including our financial institutions, offering us dependable products.

It will depend upon our workers putting in an honest day’s work.

It will depend upon our students working hard to achieve the most that they can possibly achieve.

It will depend upon our not taking on more debt than we can pay, and upon our paying back our debts on time.

It will depend upon our not trying to game the system to achieve social benefits or services for which we are not eligible.

And it will depend upon our being honest with ourselves, and each other, about what we can and cannot do.

Civil and honest conversations, acknowledgments of injustices and wrongs, apologies, and commitments to work together for a future of hope and opportunity for all are all good words. But good words, even when backed by good intentions, do not by themselves add up to, or necessarily even inspire, a firm belief in the reliability, honesty, ability, and strength of our government, our fellow citizens, and ourselves—-not without a long record of good actions that correspond to them.

Indeed, one of the central features of a breakdown in trust is the rising belief that they are all just words.

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