Trust and Freedom

"I just don't trust that people are smart enough to make the right choices.  Do you really think that there are enough intelligent people to have this kind of freedom?"  This is a sentiment that I've heard many times from seemingly goodhearted people on the left.

It's a very telling window into a very troubling belief system.

Most arguments for the expansion of government power boil down to distrust -- distrust that poor people will be taken care of; distrust that businesses will run without corruption and abuse; distrust that people will take care of their own retirement, health care, and safety needs; etc.

The list is endless, and so long as enough people remain convinced that others are basically not trustworthy, these people will continue to support the illusion that the government can somehow correct for this shortcoming and make it all okay.

Trust is the foundation of a free society.  If we could not trust the average person to be reasonably considerate and responsible, then we might be inclined to think that we need lots of laws -- and lots of other people in positions of power who can force those untrustworthy people into behaving well.  Without a degree of trust, we could not advocate for greater individual liberty -- we would not like what we came to if we had it.

The good news is that in a free society with a reasonably coherent rule of law, we do in fact have great reason to trust one another.

Sure, there are bad people who do bad things.  And there are a lot of very 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 -- but good people.

Notice today, as you go about your day, how many circumstances you are in where the most basic of interactions presumes a significant degree of trust.

Just going into a store to buy some groceries, you are walking into someone else's property.  You may not know the people who work there at all.  The owner of that store may not even know the people who work there.

You select what you want to buy, and you trust that the food itself -- what you are going to be putting into your own body and the bodies of those you love -- is of good quality, without anything poisonous or dangerous in it.  You also are in the company of perhaps dozens or more people whom you do not know, yet you trust that none of them will do any harm to you.  And you are surprised if somebody acts even mildly rude.

You give cash, or a check, or a credit or debit card to the cashier, and you trust that he or she will use it properly, and not cheat or steal from you.  The cashier trusts that what you are giving him is good money or verifiable proxy.  He also trusts that you are not there to rob or otherwise do harm to him.

You take your groceries outside, and you don't particularly worry that you will be molested on your way.  You drive your car together with dozens or hundreds of other drivers, and you can mostly depend that they will be reasonably good and safe drivers -- and they trust that you will do the same.

A small car can weigh as little as 3,000 pounds; a large pickup maybe up to 12,000 pounds.  We drive these things at speeds of 65 mph and higher.  There are a lot of accidents, and there is great danger.  But even with this level of danger, look at how rare a major accident is in relation to the continual stream of multitudes barreling at speeds that nobody had ever experienced -- without falling off a cliff -- before the faster steam engines of the mid-1800s.

At a restaurant, you are served food by total strangers, prepared by total strangers, grown and shipped by total strangers, in the company of perhaps dozens of other total strangers.  Yet you trust them, and they trust you, well enough for you to enjoy the experience largely without worry.

You go to see a ball game or a concert, and there may be literally thousands of strangers there.  Do you worry that somebody is going to do you harm?  No.  You would be surprised and angry if somebody was mildly rude -- because it rarely happens.

We have so many interactions and participate in so many activities that are dependent upon the goodwill and conscientiousness of others, and we have come to take such interactions and activities entirely for granted.

There is plenty of danger and 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 of most of us most of the time that we are shocked when anything bad happens to us or to somebody we know.

Think for a moment at how truly incredible this is, and how completely it disproves the argument for greater government control based on distrust.

The worldview that demands more and more control by the government because free people can't be trusted to help people in need, or take care of their retirement, or buy health insurance if they need it, or use the right language -- the list is endless -- does not square with the degree of trust that we actually earn and enjoy in a free society.

The use of government power -- beyond establishing a reasonably coherent rule of law -- is not necessary in order to enforce trustworthy behavior.  We can and do trust one another tremendously already.

But here is the other side of the equation: it is our freedom that not only allows for such trust, but demands of each of us that we be trustworthy people ourselves.  A free market rewards people for having greater empathy, being able to care about, inquire after, and discover what other people like and don't like, what they are interested in, and what they care about.

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, but our freedom inspires us to be trustworthy.  This is the antithesis to a vicious cycle; it is a virtuous cycle.  And it is freedom, not the coercion of ideologues, which gets that cycle moving and growing.

Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness: Ten Principles for Living a More Fulfilling Life.  He can be reached at