Societies with Northern European culture have been very successful by almost any criterion — economy, personal freedom, invention, creation of art and literature, and rule of law which is flexible enough to adapt to situations. For the past thousand years, nations and societies of Northern European and North American nations have consistently out-performed seemingly similar nations with other heritage.
I posit that this is in large part because we have a high-trust society. We can make a handshake deal and expect both sides to live up to it. Even if someone were inclined to welch on a deal, societal pressure or the fear of being unable to make arrangements in the future would deter the casual cheat. I don’t mean the fear of a court handing down a civil or criminal verdict for fraud or failure to perform. I’m referring to neighbors or fellow parishioners criticizing or shunning the cheat instead of congratulating him on putting one over that sucker.
We can drive down the street and go through a green light confident that we won’t get into an accident because someone blasted through a red light. We can even leave our front door unlocked at night because the burglary rate is so low.
That’s the ideal state, and more a description of a couple generations ago. Reality today is not quite so rosy, for at least three reasons. One is the increasing population and increased concentration in urban areas. When everyone in a small town knows each other, they’ll know who can’t be trusted to keep his word and they’ll probably have a good idea who broke into the Smiths’ house last night. By contrast, when you have a hundred thousand people in a couple square miles, interpersonal relationships break down and accountability drops along with visibility. Trust drops, too, because more people means more bad people.
The second factor in decreasing trust is automobiles, and mobility in general. Since agriculture became a big thing around six thousand years ago, most humans have lived and died within a few dozen miles of where they were born. If you’re going to be dealing with the hundred people in your village for the next thirty years, it’s in your best interest to stay in their good graces. Don’t break into their houses and steal their stuff because you’ll probably get caught when someone sees you using the stolen shovel. Don’t break promises because your neighbors will remember and you won’t be able to get help when you need it the next year.
Much the same applies to herdsmen. They move around but most of them stay within tribal groups of tens or hundreds.
It’s different when people move around as individuals or families. When you’re freed from peer pressure and memories, most of the constraints are removed. You can burglarize a house in one village and sell the valuables three villages over, then be gone again before word of the theft reaches them. You can sell shoddy goods or false information or skip out on a lease and get away from the bad reputation you just earned. As above, I’m not referring to legal repercussions but rather to the lack of trust from your neighbors and others. This mobility has been somewhat available, at least to most people who weren’t slaves or land-bound serfs, but it’s grown enormously since the availability of relatively inexpensive automobiles capable of moving a small family and a few cubic feet of possessions.
These two reasons are similar because they each arise naturally from technological or societal or economic changes and they have much the same result. The remaining reasons for the breakdown in simple trust are less natural and less benign.
In short, people are wrecking our society. They are wrecking that special nature of our society which makes it so rich, so supportive of liberty, so nurturing of trust between people. Some of this wrecking is intentional, perpetrated by people who hate what we are and what we have and the fact that we succeed and thrive where others fail. For examples, look no further than the anti-American rhetoric heard on many American campuses and activist rallies. Aside from any hint of appreciation for social and legal norms which make their lives possible, or gratitude on the part of non-Americans, there’s the cynical use of our right of free speech against the society which supports that right; we’ll see this theme later.
Some who aren’t actively anti-American are simply acting in their own selfish interests, wrecking our society as a byproduct rather than as a main goal. Those who call for unlimited immigration from shitholes to developed Western nations are a prime example. It doesn’t matter if they’re doing it out of compassion for the downtrodden wretches or because they want cheap labor for their factories and lawn services. It barely even matters whether they’re pushing only legal immigration or are turning a blind eye toward illegal immigration. What matters is the mixing of people from low-trust societies into our society. A small amount of mixing can be tolerated but, like mixing salt into sugar, more than a tiny bit ruins what you have.
Immigration isn’t the only method by which “well-intended” changes wreck the Anglosphere and other high-trust societies. Encouraging the state to not punish those who violate contracts is another. Whether through misplaced compassion for the guy who “didn’t understand what he was getting into” or through hatred of landlords or corporations or people of some non-preferred sexual or racial or religious identification, we get to a point where a lot of people see that someone can get the benefit of making a deal but escaping the concomitant responsibility. This leads to decrease in willingness to extend trust to other parties, less efficient contracts, and greater overhead in monitoring performance.
Or we can look at the operation of police forces in the United States and England. (I’m not much familiar with how the police operate in other nations. Rather, other civilized nations. I’ve seen the police in a number of shitholes.) Within living memory community policing was the norm: cops were assigned to a particular neighborhood and would walk around, talking to people and getting to know them, and keeping an eye out for anything that seemed new or unusual or suspicious. These days, the norm is for beat cops to drive around in their cruisers, seldom interacting with “civilians” unless they’ve received a call or they plan to write a citation. There are practical reasons for the change, but at the end of the day there are almost no friendly interactions between the police and the citizenry. This reduces trust in the most visible face of government.
Making matters worse is the militarization of the police over the past thirty years. The surplus Army equipment is bad enough, but the military mindset of most law enforcement officers is a bigger problem, positioning the police almost as an occupying army with an “us versus them” mentality. Even worse, “to protect and serve” has been replaced by “the most important thing is getting through the shift alive”. The catastrophic war on drugs fits in here, too. The public can’t trust the police to show up for a home invasion in progress and can’t trust them not to shoot everyone and the dog if they do come. Throw in federal and state money to local police departments so they’re not reliant on at least tacit acceptance by the local taxpayers, and asset forfeiture which gives police another revenue stream with perverse incentives, and you have a disconnect between the money to run the department and any accountability to the people who are subject to the police department’s actions.
Many of these steps were well-intended — who could object to federal grants for small, underfunded police departments to update their old and inadequate gear? Well, people did object, foreseeing exactly what did happen, a disconnect between the money for the police departments and the approval of the locals who funded them.
No matter how it came about, the public cannot trust the police to be on their side. Because the police are the most public face of the government, this decreases the trust of the public in the governments.
It also simultaneously puts the police in greater danger and isolates overreaching politicians and bureaucrats from accountability for their actions. The mayor who orders (what is claimed to be) an illegal gathering to be shut down, possibly in violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to peaceably assemble, seldom appears before the crowd and tells them to go home and apply for a block party permit. It’s the police who are bossing the people around and threatening them with arrest if they don’t follow any orders coming from the faceless people behind the orders. (To be sure, a number of police officers enjoy this little thrill of power and some will give illegal orders on their own accord. They are confident that the system will back them up, leaving them almost as unaccountable as the unnamed politicians and bureaucrats. This is a separate issue, but just as severe.)
Not that the police are the only arm of government which damages trust, both between the public and government and between members of the public. Congress specifically exempts itself from onerous and unpopular laws like Obamacare or from insider trading laws. Government offices are famously filled with slackers and incompetents who do not earn the salaries provided by the taxpayers but who cannot be fired because of extremely liberal deals with their unions. Agencies and individuals which break black-letter law are almost never held accountable, and injured individuals seldom receive compensation.
In dealings between people and companies, the government interferes with the ability of companies to hire and to fire. The government often refuses to enforce contracts, especially if the party in breach has more victim points than the other party. The list goes on.
Let’s come back to immigration. I mentioned it a few paragraphs ago in context of excusing law-breaking in the name of compassion or personal profit, and the effect this has on lawfulness and trust, and the breach of one of a national government’s unmistakable responsibilities.
It’s worse than that. Most immigrants to the US and Europe have a lower trust level than is the norm here, for the simple reason that almost no society on the planet operates at as high a trust level as we do. Every immigrant who doesn’t keep a handshake deal or who “picks up” something that someone set down for a minute — because that’s the way it’s done “back home” — lowers the trust level for us all.
But it gets worse. A large fraction of foreign-born people in the US are illegal aliens. It’s possible that a majority of them are; accurate counts either don’t exist or aren’t released to the public, so all we have are estimates and the near-certainty that we are being lied to by the government, the media, and academics. (Yet another erosion of trust.) Illegal aliens are by definition law breakers who don’t care about following the rules. Every illegal alien in the US takes a big chunk off the societal trust.
But it gets worse. Every citizen or legal resident who knowingly hires illegal aliens or houses them or educates them, every politician and activist who demands amnesty and special handouts for illegals, takes a huge chunk off of the societal trust. Even governmental refusal to get a solid count of the number of illegal aliens on our land erodes the trust level.
So. Given all that mountain of distrust, building over half a century, what do we do about it? How do we fix this mess?
Frankly, I’m not it can be fixed, not within a generation or a lifetime. High-trust cultures took centuries to develop and to flourish but they can be wrecked in a generation.
But maybe it’s not too late. Maybe trust hasn’t been completely extinguished.
We can start by alerting people to the problem. Make people aware of how much of America’s and Britain’s success and wealth and progress rests on not having to nail down every detail of every deal and of not having to take everyone to court (or to start a clan feud) every time someone sees a way to cheat.
When you have a choice, deal with trustworthy people who understand and will keep handshake deals, and to let them know why you chose them.
Educate foreigners from low-trust countries. Explain why scamming the immigration laws to bring in more of their relatives is not only bad for society but can be bad for them personally. Teach them why taking advantage of every lapse in someone else’s attentiveness is bad for them, whether that means stealing everything that’s not being watched or sneaking twelve people into a two-bedroom apartment. You probably won’t get anywhere; a lot non-Americans always have some hustle going and think themselves better and smarter than the stupid natives, so convincing them that they’re helping to wreck everything is an uphill battle.
For your part, don’t take advantage of people when you see they forgot to nail down some detail in a deal. Don’t run little schemes and scams; even though the guy who’s always got some hustle going can make for an entertaining character in fiction, there’s a reason that honest people never really trust them.
And punch the next scammer you meet. Do it for America.