Trust: My Theory of Everything, from 1995

The recent talk about “trust” with regard to the transportation sales tax referendum reminds me of one of my earliest columns for The State‘s editorial page. This ran on Feb. 7, 1995. I had only been on the editorial board a year at the time. Back then, board members rarely wrote columns; I was the only one to do so on a regular basis — I just couldn’t hold back. (Fellow Associate Editor Kent Krell called me “the Energizer Bunny” behind my back.) When I became editorial page editor two years later, I started requiring associate editors to write at least a column a week.

Anyway, while the headline was amazingly boring, I still like the column, and wouldn’t change a word of it:

Shortage of trust underlies most current problems

Associate Editor

British Prime Minister John Major says the Irish peace process is threatened by a lack of trust among the Protestants of Ulster.

Well, we can’t help him with that one. American citizens have been pretty good about supplying weapons to Irish killers over the years, but we can’t spare any trust just now. We’re fresh out.

In fact, I am increasingly convinced that virtually every social problem we have in America arises from a shortage of that commodity.

The more I think about this, the more it seems like a universal principle: When mutual trust is high, society runs smoothly; when trust is low, it doesn’t. That sounds simple, but when it first occurred to me, I was startled to realize how much it explained. It seemed the sociopolitical equivalent of the unified field theory that physicists seek.

Look around. Depending on who we are, we don’t trust : the rich, the poor, the congressman, the congresswoman, the teacher, the student, older people, younger people, TV, newspapers, the courts, the police, the boss, the employees, liberals, conservatives, the guy next door, the guy across town, the guy walking down the sidewalk toward us, feminists, preachers, lawyers, doctors, businesses or customers.

A lack of basic trust of each other explains why:

  • We have so many laws, and so many lawyers. We trust nothing to common sense.
  • Thirty years after the Civil Rights Act, black and white Americans still seem to be at odds on so many fronts. So we have affirmative action and racially gerrymandered legislative districts.
  • Feminists continue to believe that a “glass ceiling” keeps women down.
  • Political discourse has gotten ugly. We no longer trust people who disagree with us to speak in good faith.
  • We want term limits, spending caps and other ways of putting government on autopilot. (We don’t trust either elected representatives or our fellow voters.)
  • We buy so many guns and build so many prisons.
  • We call the cops rather than tell those kids on the corner to “cut that out!”

It’s why we form taxpayer advocacy groups. We don’t trust government with our money.

Government! Why, we don’t trust government to do anything right, and we almost never think of the government as us anymore, as though the great American experiment in self-government were over. Now, government seems to many of us like this menacing thing out there, an intruder to be cast out of our lives. Yet what is “government” but the means by which we come together to decide, as a people, how we will live with one another?

Basically, we’ve lost faith in most of the institutions, large and small, through which our public life once found meaning.

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time, just a generation or two ago, when people sort of took it for granted that the rest of the world wasn’t out to get them. Back during the Depression, people were poor, but they didn’t resent it too much because they looked around and saw other people were poor, too. Then we beat Hitler and imperial Japan, and our greatest weapon was our ability to pull together in trusting teamwork. The government asked us not only to pay our taxes but place further trust in it by buying war bonds, and we did. The government told us that the boys at the front needed rubber and steel more than we did, and we went without and conducted drives.

After the war, we found even more reasons to trust government and the larger society. Government policies, paired with an exponentially expanding economy, helped create the affluent middle class of the ’50s and ’60s through enactment of bold policies in the late ’40s, such as the GI bill and subsidized low-interest mortgages.

Citizens who had been left out of what prosperity had existed before in America were given a fair shot at the American dream for the first time — partly because of court and congressional action, but mostly because the majority of Americans were convinced that it was wrong to treat people differently because of skin color.

So what happened? A lot. We fought a war that, instead of pulling us together, pulled us apart. Leveling the playing field between black and white didn’t level social and economic inequities, and we’re still fighting over why. A President was brought low, and people started looking at their leaders in a different way. Women sought equity with men at the same time that a shifting economy forced them into the workplace whether they wanted to be there or not. And yes, the press has had a lot to do with the decline of trust and sense of community in our society. For too long, we saw our job as being largely to tell you what was wrong with government and society so you, the voter, could fix it. We’ve focused on failures and conflict, and then we sit back and wonder why everybody seems to think society’s gone rotten. Our friends in the electronic media have done their bit, too, of course. You’d think from watching TV news that there’s nothing going on outside your door but random murders, rapes, robberies and lousy weather. So why go out and get involved?

And yet that is precisely what we must do if we’re going to fix this problem. We’ve got to unlock the door, go outside and encounter each other. We’ve got to take chances.

We have to engage — pay attention, think, run for office, circulate petitions, vote.

But first we have to believe that we can make a difference, that we can form communities rooted in good faith, that we can govern ourselves with civility. It may seem like a long shot, but it can be done. Trust me.

42 thoughts on “Trust: My Theory of Everything, from 1995

  1. bud

    There was a time, just a generation or two ago, when people sort of took it for granted that the rest of the world wasn’t out to get them.
    -1995 Brad

    You could go back to 1975 or 1955 or 1935 and find someone writing about the simpler time when everyone was more trusting. It’s just a fictional construct that somehow we take comfort from. But sadly it was a time that never really existed.

  2. Doug Ross

    Bud is right. If you think there was some magical bond between government and the people at any time, you are reading too many history books. It may seem worse now simply because there is more government. The distrust is due to performance and pervasiveness.

  3. Brad

    No, Bud, you’re wrong. I have a pretty good grasp of history. I’m good at noting the differences in the way original sources expressed ideas at different times, and what sorts of tones and themes and modes of expression predominated. I don’t just write something like this based on mushy sentimentality.

    It is beyond question that during my lifetime, our life has become FAR more about meticulous rules and guidelines and leaving nothing to chance — and a sometimes pathetic belief that you can actually substitute such things for judgment.

    This is a megatrend over time, as our society became more populated, better educated, and more industrialized. And it hasn’t always been a bad thing. But the increasing regimentation of life — running things by rules rather than by trusting each other — has happened whether it’s a good thing or not.

    You can see it more dramatically if you look farther back than a generation or two.

    For instance, right now I’m reading “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. She makes the point a number of times about how in the world in which that generation grew up, there were no qualifications to be a teacher. You could start a school, and charge money to parents, when you barely had any education yourself. (Sort of like the world the “school choice” people would like to recreate today, come to think of it.)

    Or say you wanted to become a lawyer — you “read law” with another lawyer. It was very informal.

    Look at merit in the Army in those days. In early 1861, Robert E. Lee wasn’t even yet a colonel. And yet his superiors wanted to put him in command of the defense of Washington as a major general. In the blink of an eye as careers go, he was the top general in the Confederacy. Yes, Lee was extraordinary, but such leapfrog promotion wasn’t that unusual in those days. The people in charge saw potential in someone and acted upon that judgment, and SOCIETY LET THEM DO SO.

    That’s the way the world used to work. Now, try to get a top job without having the right resume, crossing all the Ts and dotting all the Is.

    This is in part for good reasons. In a society that has adopted total fairness to women, minorities, and people who have no advantages of family and connections, it becomes highly important to base decisions on criteria that are as objective as possible.

    And we do this because we don’t simply TRUST those making the decisions to do so fairly, merely using their own judgment.

    You like statistics more than these leaps of understanding, I know. But I suspect that if you cared to subject this to statistical analysis (I’m not interested enough in proving it that way to do so), you would find that what I’m saying is confirmable. For instance, if you were to count the steps a decision-maker in an organization had to go through in 1910 to make a decision to the requirements today, you would see a marked increase.

    As time passes, there are more laws, more rules.

  4. Brad

    Since we’re having a presidential election, let’s look at our attitudes toward presidential leadership along this axis.

    FDR couldn’t walk, and the nation was content to believe he was up to the job. Despite how long it took to dig out of the Depression, he was elected four times and if he could have lived forever might have gone on being re-elected. We felt good about him, so we stuck with him.

    JFK had a personal life that would destroy a political career in one news cycle today. But it wasn’t reported on, because the people who knew were content to leave well enough alone. We are NOT that forgiving today, and the reporter who ignored such behavior would never work again. (Of course, there are a lot of us who will never be paid to be journalists again today, but that’s a separate issue.)

    We are simply not a society that is willing to let something go, and there was a time when we actually were more relaxed on that score.

    Look at you: You won’t vote for Romney because he put his dog on the top of his car once — a tiny personal detail that you would NEVER have known about in a previous age, and would have blithely gone on with your life without knowing.

    We are more critical, more demanding, more exacting today than ever. And my explanation for it all is the diminution of trust over time.

  5. Brad

    Doug, there is “more government,” in the sense of more bureaucracy, because we trust less.

    That’s one of the great ironies. Somebody doesn’t trust government (or anyone), so they demand a rule, a checklist, some red tape, some sort of verification procedure. Voter ID, for instance.

    So the procedures are put in place, and people are hired and trained to administer them.

    Then the same kinds of people who lodged the original complaint, who didn’t want to just trust that things would be OK without the extra procedures, start complaining that there’s too much bureaucracy…

  6. Brad

    Of course, what we’re seeing here is a classic cognitive divide, which we’ve encountered here hundreds if not thousands of times. I am given to intuitive leaps. Bud and Doug most decidedly are NOT (I suppose y’all would come out as S on the Myers-Briggs scale, while I am extremely N). Therefore, they dismiss leaps like this that link lots of disparate elements as nonsense.

    There’s not much I can do to bridge that.

  7. Brad

    Or look at education. I might never graduate if I were a kid today, with the homework and other objective criteria that students are judged by.

    I was a fast talker, and the teachers KNEW I knew the material, and gave me good grades. But I didn’t do the work.

    Watching my kids labor along through a MUCH more task-oriented education system, with its objective criteria and zero-tolerance policies, made me glad I got through school when I did.

    When I was in school, a teacher was free to decide that I was not a threat because I had a Boy Scout pocketknife in my pocket.

    Today, the teacher would not be allowed to decide that the well-spoken little white boy was not a threat. In a diverse environment in which “judgment” can be seen as prejudice (in an untrusting environment), the kid gets expelled for a butter knife.

  8. Steven Davis II

    Maybe if you had studied and not been such a “fast talker” you wouldn’t be afraid of anything that has to do with numbers like freaking out if you had to balance your checkbook or do your own taxes.

  9. Doug Ross

    Falling back on the Myers-Briggs excuse is pretty weak. I guess it means you can never be wrong because that’s the way you are using your advanced intuition skills.

    Unfortunately, I think you form an opinion and then filter out any factual information that detracts from that opinion (because then you’d be wrong!)

    Was there Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security “way back then”? Was there a Federal Reserve? Was there a Department of Energy? A Department of Housing and Urban Development (1965)? A Department of Education (1980)? A Department of Energy (1977)? TSA? Homeland Security?

    The pervasiveness of government combined with greater access to all sorts of media to assess the actions of the government generates the distrust. The Vietnam War couldn’t be presented through the eyes of propaganda peddlers. Watergate exposed the backroom illegal activities that were going on for decades. Iran Contra showed there were factions within the government willing to create their own foreign policy. Bill Clinton did things in the Oval Office that John F. Kennedy would have called a typical Thursday afternoon.

    Many of us don’t trust government simply because of its track record. It’s really not any more complex than that.

  10. Doug Ross

    I had to go back and re-read your comment on J.F.K. Are you seriously suggesting that his serial infidelity was not something the American public should have known about?

    We need politicians who are ethical, not ones who can be whitewashed into the appearance of being ethical.

    I’m stunned by your ability to be so dismissive of behavior that would cause anyone else to be ashamed.

  11. Brad

    Actually, Doug, I wasn’t “falling back” on Myers Briggs. My mentioning it is my way of giving y’all an excuse for not seeing what I’m talking about.

    The point in people learning about such types, supposedly, is to learn why people see things differently, and try to understand that without judging. In other words, I don’t see y’all as dumb for not following my leaps, and y’all don’t see me as crazy for making such leaps.

    That’s how it’s SUPPOSED to work, anyway. At least, that’s what they told us at the corporate retreat that I would NEVER have had to attend had I been a manager in the same organization 40 years earlier. Ahem.

  12. Brad

    On the JFK thing, once again, I’m talking about how SOCIETY has changed over time.

    In a society in which one’s private life was private and you were judged by your public deeds, yes, a politician could get away with that. But with a more exacting, less trusting society, it is highly unlikely that the few people who had an inkling of what was going on would have let it slide.

    Now, you want to see me argue against my own thesis? Here goes…

    If he could have run again in 2000, I suspect most Democrats would have voted for Bill Clinton. And we had FAR more information about his proclivities than we’ll ever have about Kennedy’s. They would have done this in spite of his tendency to abuse his power to exploit the least powerful women around him. He didn’t go after goddesses of the silver screen who were established personages in their own right. He went for the intern.

    So basically, human political behavior is far too complex to encapsulate in a single theory. But we knew that. That doesn’t keep us from trying theories, sifting through them, in an effort to better understand our world. Or it shouldn’t.

  13. Juan Caruso

    “We have so many laws, and so many lawyers. We trust nothing to common sense.” – BW

    Not quite. Jury nullification hints otherwise. Lawyers (officers of a court) and politicians (lawmakers of the people) have exaggerated their power to foist their decorous notions of political correctness and propriety on truly ultimate arbitrators — the rest of us, great, unwashed masses.

    I rest my case.

  14. Scout

    I too am a strong N, and I would like to try and explain what it feels to me is happening with the intuition thing. It might be easier to respect/accept if it can be explained/understood. It’s pattern recognition and extrapolation on a subconscious level. At least to me, it seems that I intuitively sense the underlying patterns in things and when I encounter a similar pattern in a new thing, I can quickly jump to a conclusion about it by extrapolating from the previous pattern. But it’s rarely a conscious thing. And it can be wrong. Sometimes similar patterns do not yield the same result. But that is not quite the same thing as “I think you form an opinion and then filter out any factual information that detracts from that opinion”

  15. bud

    Brad, you’ve made some excellent points but they only apply to white, male Christians. A black guy would not share this trust in the government thing while running from a lynch mob for the heinous of crime (allegedly) whistling at a white girl. Or the Cherokee Indian who had to march 1500 miles to resettle from FL to OK. Or the woman who was denied the vote before 1920. But as a treatise for white men trusting other white men in government you do make some great points.

  16. Brad

    I could argue with that, but the bigger issue is that you’re missing my point, Bud.

    I look around at the people who are MOST alienated, who trust the least, who are most suspicious of their neighbors and their communities and everything else. The people whose lack of trust does the most to drive us apart and keep us from coming together to solve the challenges that face us.

    It’s the Angry White Guys.

    And they used to not be this way, at least not to this extent. And when they were less this way, the country worked better — not for the white guys, but for EVERYBODY. It was in that flush of fellow feeling in the postwar era that we passed the laws and took the actions to bring everyone into the circle of this country’s blessings, because we were a more generous and less distrustful nation then.

  17. bud

    I could argue with that, but the bigger issue is that you’re missing my point, Bud.

    Given the number of times you admonish people (not just me) for “missing the point” doesn’t it suggest that maybe your points are sometimes a bit too vague or nuanced to properly grasp, even for those of who are both educated and familiar with your writing style?

  18. bud

    The Angry White Guys are the ones who used to have the most power and authority and now that is threatened. Seems pretty obvious to me. As one of the white guys I don’t much care if blacks, women, gays, Jews, Muslims or anyone else has a greater amount of power/authority/freedom/respect/rights. But apparently I’m an outlier.

  19. bud

    It was in that flush of fellow feeling in the postwar era that we passed the laws and took the actions to bring everyone into the circle of this country’s blessings, because we were a more generous and less distrustful nation then.

    Given the McCarthy Communist witch hunts of the 1950s I would maintain that is just a historical interpretation that simply did not exist.

  20. Brad

    Of course, you’re absolutely right — the McCarthy hearings defined our everyday lives and perfectly captured and embodied the reality that we all experienced throughout the era.

    Whereas silly little things like the Civil Rights Act had zero impact on our lives.

    Is that what you’re saying? I’m trying to be agreeable, here…

  21. Doug Ross

    Let’s see how many employees in the SCDOR are fired over the security breach. That will be a good test of how much trust we should place in government. This isn’t an “oops” incident, it is about incompetence.

  22. Mark Stewart


    You well know it is far more complex than simple incompetence when something like this happens within a governmental agency – or within a corporation.

    The hunters always have certain advantages over the prey.

    But I am not excusing the Dept of Revenue; this probably had more to do with civil service seniority / institutional complacency than it did with executive leadership – except that of course the buck stops at the top.

  23. Kathryn Fenner

    The data were not encrypted. I read that there was plenty of notice that this was seriously insecure. Somehow there was not enough funding to fix it. I don’t know enough to call BS or not on these claims….but the data should have been encrypted.

    This is the largest security breach of government data by several orders of magnitude.

    We put a freeze on our credit. We had just finished the monitoring from the USC breach a few years back. Sheesh!

  24. Doug Ross


    As an IT person who has had to deal with data security my entire working career, this breach is unacceptable.

  25. Doug Ross

    I go back to the comment I wrote last week: “Many of us don’t trust government simply because of its track record. It’s really not any more complex than that.”

  26. Brad

    Y’all aren’t going to like Nikki Haley’s response to this mess, then… I’m just back from the presser, and I’ll post something on it shortly.

  27. susanincola

    I agree with Doug (et al) — all personally-identifiable information must be encrypted — basic rule for every financial institution in the country — (and others, too, but I mostly work with financial institutions).

  28. Doug Ross

    Having worked multiple times in the past couple years on human resource information systems, one of the first discussions we have with clients is how to protect sensitive information like social security numbers, birth dates, etc. If we don’t need it in our system, we don’t bring it in simply because it requires so much more diligence to protect.

    Somebody screwed up and somebody should be held responsible.

  29. Doug Ross

    That being said, you can’t blame Haley for this situation only for the delay in reporting it. Do we know if she hired the head of IT for the DOR? Fitsnews is claiming that guy was terminated a couple weeks ago.

  30. `Kathryn Braun Fenner

    Of all the commenters whom people might want to ignore, I doubt I am at the top of the list of many….
    If you ignored me, SD II, how would you know what to comment about?

  31. Silence

    I would ignore the original posts, and then just talk about whatever I wanted to talk about.

    So, did you hear that the HMS Bounty sank? Are we living in 1790? I wonder what this will do to this year’s breadfruit crop? What say you, Mr. Christian?


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