Signs of the Times

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 February 17, 2018|
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When we think about “Making America Great Again,” surely one such feature that would contribute to it would be the end of nihilistic crimes, such as serial killings, riots, and, of course, the hallmark of our times, the mass shooting. These things simply did not happen very much in the good old days, which is to say, before things began to fall apart in the late 1960s.

Crime and disorder are complicated questions, of course. Incarceration rates seem to matter, as does the presence of an intact family. But much that once defined our “way of life” goes beyond the “national creed” or the “rule of law” or even Christianity. Much of what defined us, once upon a time, was a high degree of trust.

High trust societies are noticeably different. Social bonds can extend beyond the immediate kinship group. Crime is low, because of the risk of reputational harm, as well as the high levels of surveillance in high trust communities. Much that laws and regulations attempt to address can be secured by simple trust. This is evident in photos of the recent past, where kids played unsupervised, schools hosted rifle teams, and young men and women drove cars and worked, when today they are pacified either by smartphones or SSRIs.

There still are some places where a handshake counts for something, where kids do not need to be regimented and supervised well into their teen years, and where doors are really unlocked at night. 

But the signs of declining trust and social fragmentation are everywhere. Consider the recent end of L.L. Bean’s lifetime return policy. For over 100 years, customers could return anything at any time if they were not satisfied with it. Economists might see an arbitrage opportunity, and the “rational actors” of our low trust, low honor society increasingly did so, sometimes treating items such as skis and tents like rentals and returning them after the end of the season, or, more dramatically, returning worn out products that did exactly what they were supposed to do many years after the original purchase.

The viability of this type of generous guarantee likely depends on some notion of honor, reinforced by a perceived similarity between the customers and the seller, that is to say, by trust. Social solidarity and a sense of shared destiny are necessary so that cheaters don’t take advantage of such common, though easily abused, offers.

Most traditional notions of honor, good manners, and the like are directed at exactly these kinds of abuses. For example, if everyone were like Mr. Pink of Reservoir Dogs fame, the entire profit model of waitressing would break down. Instead, most people tip, even when they don’t expect to be repeat customers, and in spite of the lack of any formal obligation to do so. The importance of these unwritten rules is the main theme of Francis Fukuyama’s work from the mid-1990s, Trust.

I imagine, as a matter of evolutionary biology, trust is actually quite natural and regular. Without it, social life would be too difficult to sustain. If a bunch of ants, through instinct, can all find their way to the Snickers Bar on the ground and still share morsels with the queen and the little baby ants, human beings, who are far more complex and equally social, have had to learn similar good habits. Generally, we instill habits of cooperation and sociability at an early age, while ostracizing antisocial and selfish behavior in others and condemning such behavior in one’s self.

But this socialization, seemingly irrational for individuals, likely also requires some sense of the “in” group and the “out” group to survive as a practical matter. And the reasons are obvious. People who can get together for a barn-raising, also could find themselves poisoning the wells and burning down the villages of an outside group when threatened, all the while imaging this to be good, moral behavior. While our age sings the praises of diversity, unity appears far more necessary and fragile in a world of competing groups.

Some cultures appear more cooperative and trusting than others, with East Asia and Northern Europe seeming to have the greatest capacity for cooperation outside of kinship groups. A great deal of literature in the western world is concerned with teaching the beauty of this kind of cooperative behavior, including tales like George Washington and his Cherry Tree or Aesop’s Fables. But there are limits.

Fractured nations with strong subcultures and “diverse” groupings of people necessarily have less trust. Everyone must take more steps to ensure they’re not ripped off or otherwise victimized by behavior that only is sensible among people who have similar and reciprocal mores. The only reason the L.L. Bean guarantee worked for so long is that most of its customers, until recently, had some sense of decency, shame, and fair play. They had these things because America is a nation with historically high levels of trust.

You will be less likely to find such guarantees in diverse settings; recall the mutual hostility of Korean shop-owners and African-Americans in South Central Los Angeles at the time of the 1992 riots. Surely their ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and other differences had a great deal to do with it.

Beyond economic effects, serious crime is also affected by this devolution of common bonds. Serial and mass killers also may have some sense of horror if the harm were done to their own families, whom they treat normally. They do what they do, in part, by depersonalizing their victims. When the nation is just a shared piece of geography, the limits to crime brought about by a shared identity also declines. The neighbor can become more and more the “other,” to whom nothing is owed and no commonality is recognized.

The smaller costs of a low trust society accumulate as well. We may find ourselves negotiating a “bulletproof lazy susan” in retail establishments or arguing endlessly with a bureaucrat who has no reason to take one’s word. Our public spaces more and more will resemble military fortresses, designed to keep bad people with guns outside the perimeter.

So whether it is kids trick-or-treating without parental supervision, making a living on tips, or going to school without fear that you will be mowed down by an alienated teenager, the poison fruits of lost trust leave people uneasy. The shaming language of leftism functions in large part to render this unease a forbidden thought, even though the desire to be around people who think, live, dress, worship, look, and act similarly to oneself is perfectly common to all groups of people from every background, as evidenced by the voluntary choices people make when choosing where to live.

Declining trust is exacerbated by our disunity, which is fueled in part by our existing regional tensions and the constant arrival of newcomers from very different places. We do not have the same heroes, same songs, or same language anymore. The Red and Blue states are more polarized than they were even 20 years ago. In large cities, people are increasingly isolated, limited to small circles of families and friends, often even speaking different languages, and consequently less defined by common interests and fewer common pursuits than ever.

While there will be much talk of gun control and mental health in the weeks ahead, neither guns nor mental health exist in a vacuum. Their latent evils are magnified by the lack of trust. High trust Switzerland has few issues with violence, in spite of widespread gun ownership; low trust Somalia and Mexico, of course, have much more. Indeed, low trust societies likely breed more mental health ills, as Emile Durkheim documented over a century ago.

In short, in a world with deliberately engineered diversity—that is to say, disunity—expect to see the consequences of declining trust in matters great and small.

About the Author:

Christopher Roach
Christopher Roach is an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, The Journal of Property Rights in Transition, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.