TRUST AND FREEDOM
Trust is the foundation of a free society. If we can’t trust the average person to be reasonably considerate and responsible, the alternative is tyranny: lots of laws, and greater power to force hundreds of millions of (other) untrustworthy people into behaving according to somebody’s vision of virtue.
Much of what we see in the media, are taught in college, and are told by pundits carries a strong message that the world is a horribly dangerous place, where trust is not justified or common.
But the truth is exactly the opposite. In a free society with a reasonably coherent rule of law we do in fact have great reason to trust one another… and to expect that trust to grow. We don’t need perfect trust, or perfect behavior – whatever that would be.
There are plenty of bad people who do bad things – just witness the terror attacks in Paris this week. And there are a lot of good people who make mistakes or can be occasionally rude or deceitful. But most people are good people. Not perfect people, not ideal people, not the vision of moral purity that fuels the idealist’s vision for humankind – and eludes the realities of human nature.
Notice today, as you go about your day, how often the most basic of interactions presume a significant degree of trust.
We go to the store to buy some groceries; we are walking into someone else’s property. We may not know the people who work there at all. The owner of that store may not even know the people who work there.
We trust that the food itself is of good quality, without anything poisonous or dangerous in it. We do this in the company of dozens or more strangers throughout the store, yet we trust that none of them will do any harm to us. And we are surprised if somebody acts even mildly rude.
We pay the cashier, and trust that he or she will use our method of payment properly, and not cheat or steal from us. The cashier trusts that what we are giving them is good money, and that we will not rob them or do harm to them.
We drive our car together with dozens or hundreds of other drivers on our way, and can trust that they will – for the most part – be good and safe enough drivers. And they trust that we will do the same.
A small car can weigh as little as 3,000 pounds; a large pick-up maybe up to 12,000 pounds. We drive these metal boxes at speeds of 65 mph and higher. There are accidents, and there is great potential danger. But even so, look at how rare a major accident is in relation to the continuous stream of multitudes zooming closer than a Blue Angels formation, and at speeds that had never been experienced by a single human being – without falling off a cliff – before the advent of the faster steam locomotives of the mid 1800’s.
We go to a restaurant, and buy food grown and shipped, prepared, and served by total strangers; in the company of perhaps dozens of other total strangers. Yet we trust them and they trust us well enough for us to enjoy the experience without worry.
We have so many interactions and participate in so many activities that depend on the goodwill and conscientiousness of others, and we’ve come to take such interactions and activities entirely for granted.
There is plenty of danger and occasionally here is significant harm done, and there are lots of people whom we cannot trust. But the hazards of modern life in a free society make up such a small percentage of the experience for most of us most of the time that we are shocked when anything bad happens.
Think for a moment at how truly incredible this is.
There was a delightful experiment done by Kacie Kinzer in New York City that demonstrates my point.
She set up what she called “tweenbots;” 10 inch tall little robots that move in a straight line, that rely on people to point them in the right direction. Each “tweenbot” had a specific destination written on a flag.
As they were set off on their quest to reach that destination, they would need lots of help. Every time they needed to do anything but go in a perfectly straight line, they would need some person who had no knowledge of the experiment to stop whatever they were doing and deliberately help it along its way.
Though Kinzer was expecting that very few would ever make it, what she found speaks to the tremendous degree of trust that we can and do take for granted:
“The results were unexpected. Over the course of the following months, throughout numerous missions, the Tweenbots were successful in rolling from their start point to their far-away destination assisted only by strangers. Every time the robot got caught under a park bench, ground futilely against a curb, or became trapped in a pothole, some passerby would always rescue it and send it toward its goal.
Never once was a Tweenbot lost or damaged. Often, people would ignore the instructions to aim the Tweenbot in the ‘right’ direction, if that direction meant sending the robot into a perilous situation. One man turned the robot back in the direction from which it had just come, saying out loud to the Tweenbot, ‘You can’t go that way, it’s toward the road.’”
Even with the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, the world view that we are fed continually by the media of an increasingly dangerous world does not square with the degree of trust and safety that we actually enjoy.
It’s our freedom that allows for such trust; it also demands of each of us that we are trustworthy people ourselves. A free market rewards people for having greater empathy, being able to care about, inquire, and discover what other people like and don’t like, what they are interested in, and what they care about.
We don’t remain customers of businesses that betray our trust. Trust is the essential ingredient in any relationship, including any business relationship. Because of this, a free society asks us to live up to our greatest potential for trustworthiness, and by and large those expectations are met and surpassed.
So not only are we able to be entrusted with freedom, our freedom inspires us to be trustworthy. This is the antithesis of a vicious cycle, it is a virtuous cycle. And it is the Classical liberal tradition of freedom, markets, and a reasonable rule of law that inspires virtue to turn like nothing else.
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