The Problem of Trust
If you don’t trust a merchant, will you do business with him? If you don’t trust a lawyer, would you rely on his advice? If you distrust a doctor, would you let him operate on you?
Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas said out loud what should by now be obvious to everyone.
“I no longer have trust in the institution,” Thomas said of the high court after the leak of a draft decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade.
Thomas was appalled by the breach of the court’s tradition of keeping tentative decisions secret until they are released in final form.
“It was beyond anyone’s understanding, or at least anyone’s imagination, that someone would do that,” said Thomas. “I do think what happened at the court is tremendously bad. I wonder how long we’re going to have these institutions at the rate we’re undermining them, and then I wonder when they’re gone or they are destabilized, what we’ll have as a country -- and I don’t think that the prospects are good if we continue to lose them.”
Any dispassionate assessment must conclude that what’s poisoned the high court to the point of being untrustworthy long ago spread to every institution in the land.
“Whom do you trust?” Make a list. It will be short, if you’re honest. Then make a list of the people, groups, and institutions you don’t trust. Not short at all.
The natural inclination of men to serve themselves at the expense of others is the root of distrust. Today, polls document Americans’ sinking faith in businesses, education, news agencies, even their religious institutions.
Pew Research Center concluded in 2019: “Many people no longer think the federal government can actually be a force for good or change in their lives. This kind of apathy and disengagement will lead to an even worse and less representative government.” Moreover, fading interpersonal trust is sinking just as badly: “As a democracy founded on the principle of E Pluribus Unum, the fact that we are divided and can’t trust sound facts means we have lost our confidence in each other.”
Institutions only function well when, like at an intersection, everyone trusts everyone else to stop on a red light. We’ve entered an age of no red lights, or even green lights. Chaos. Proceed at your own risk.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Historically, it’s rare to find a trustworthy human organization. What people could trust was that those in power would serve themselves first and foremost. Serving the people, not so much.
Our nation was founded on the reality that it’s unwise to trust government. That’s why the Founders created multiple means to keep in check those with power over others. Checks and balances and the very concept of three branches of government weren’t established to make it easier for government to do things.
They were established to make it more difficult. Why? Because people are untrustworthy.
Notice that we now engage in wars, shut down businesses, restrict personal behavior, dole out health care and travel permission with the stroke of a pen. Today, exercise of power has few and inadequate restraints.
"I've got a pen and I've got a phone… and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions," President Barack Obama audaciously declared when Congress suggested his legislative agenda was a nonstarter. But such impudence already had become the rule, rather than an exception.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, frustrated that constitutional checks and balances prevented getting court approval for his big government schemes, threatened to pack the Supreme Court with more agreeable justices. FDR’s ploy ultimately prevailed. The high court began to rule favorably on Roosevelt’s New Deal, obviously intimidated by the threat to add more justices.
Such work-arounds for government to exercise extracurricular authority increasingly succeeded to an astonishing degree. Who knew until we were cursed with COVID that you would need government’s permission to worship in church?
As a wise Brit once said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Founders understood this tendency of men to use power to acquire greater power and to subjugate other men to their desires. The Founders attempt to protect us from that natural tendency is what made the United States a bold experiment in self-rule.
Tragically, the experiment is floundering, if not failing. As someone (no, it probably wasn’t Thomas Jefferson) explained, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."
Whoever said it, he was prescient.
Historically, when people lose faith in their institutions it has not ended well.
Often it results in civil disobedience. Have you noticed the expanding tendency to lawlessness? Can Portland and Seattle business owners trust police will protect them when violent rioters begin burning down their stores?
Sometimes it results in revolution. Republicans were accused by Democrats of waging “insurrection” for protesting at the Capitol Jan. 6, 2021, and arrested for walking through doors to public buildings opened by armed government security guards who waved them in. Now Democrats wage their version of insurrection by angrily gathering outside private homes of Supreme Court justices to intimidate them into changing their vote on Roe v. Wade. How much trust do you think those Republican and Democratic protesters have in their government? Do they have more or less trust since their protests?
A substantial portion of the electorate concluded after 2020’s presidential campaign that government can’t be trusted to run fair elections. Some states responded with new “election integrity” laws, sadly ranging from cosmetic to questionably effective.
Despite lopsided polls expressing a nationwide anger with Democratic power wielders up to and including the president, do you trust there will be no widespread cheating and rigging of elections?
When people are constrained by their overlords and can’t achieve their desires within the system, they either conform or change the system. How many of you are content with efforts so far to change the system? If you cannot trust that to happen, what’s next? In our radically polarized nation, what are the odds Republicans and Democrats can trust each other to give them a fair shake?
If Americans retain any of the stuff that gave our Founders backbone and courage, will there be civil disobedience? Revolution? Another secession by those who want to govern themselves, as did the colonists? Is it reasonable to trust in a more civil resolution?
Mark Landsbaum is a Christian retired journalist, former investigative reporter, editorial writer, and columnist. He also is a husband, father, grandfather, and Dodgers fan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.