Trust in Institutions protects our democracy and a market system.
The collapse of trust is almost exactly like climate change. We cannot simply wave a magic wand, and “fix” it. It is much more poisonous than we suspect. It creates a vicious cycle where societies are unable to invest in public goods, people’s standard of living falls, and they turn to demagogues.
Trust is hard to create, and easy to destroy. Once it’s gone, it’s gone not for good — but for a very long time. You can’t simply “reboot” trust — press a button, and voila, more trust. Trust in this sense a true form of capital: we must invest ourselves to earn it, and then spend it wisely, not just squander it.
A society is first and foremost a vehicle for collective investment in public goods. Public goods are the basics of a good life: healthcare, transport, education, and so on, don’t just make people “productive” — they make educated, serene, brave, strong people, who can take risks to do genuinely great things. You’re not going to create the next world wide web if you’re worried about you can’t pay a life-destroying medical bill, for example.
But a society without trust can’t invest in public goods. If you don’t trust your neighbor, your city, state, society, government, and so on, you’ll be obsessed with the cost of “tax dollars”, instead of what social investments yield. Hence, Americans can’t have what the rest of the rich world takes for granted: public healthcare, education, finance. They live profoundly crippled lives: precarious, anxious, afraid. They will never retire, can’t afford to educate their kids, and their incomes have been stagnant for decades. No wonder there is widespread rage.
You might think: trust isn’t that important. It’s just soft stuff! You can’t touch it or taste it or smell it, like, say, fresh money, a gleaming new car, apps. But trust precedes all those. Without it, the money doesn’t get spent, the goods don’t get made, the investments don’t happen. Do you spend much of yourself on what and who you don’t trust? Your money, at stores? Your time, with coworkers, Your love, with people? Perhaps you see the point. Trust is a kind of capital that precedes money and effort and ideas, financial and human and intellectual capital.
So there is a link. Somehow, suspicious of each other to the last, the American economy has turned extractive: GDP “grows”, while life expectancy falls. Think about that for a moment — it means that extreme capitalism is eating itself, you, me, democracy, the planet, society as we know it.