Trust is far more important than law.

Think of it: how many times have you sued somebody, or been sued? Have you ever been arrested? Each of us interacts with many others in numerous ways every day, and recourse to the law is exceptionally rare. Our actions may be constrained by certain laws; but usually they are far more limited by the expectations of those with whom we are dealing.

If you were unwilling to trust others, it would be next to impossible to accomplish anything. Once, when I was a young banker, I was asked to hand deliver a package containing $10 million in fully negotiable securities to a major corporate customer. Had I been of a mind to do so, I could have fled to some country that didn’t have an extradition treaty with the US, cashed in the securities and been quite wealthy. There were no safeguards, save my local ties and sense of honor.

On a smaller scale, such situations arise every day in almost every kind of business. It is simply not possible to protect yourself against the possibility that everybody else has a thief’s heart. If business people seriously considered that possibility, the costs of doing the simplest things – like delivering some securities – would be astronomical. And if we tried to have negotiated contracts encompass every permutation of possibility, no deal could ever be completed. Business relies mostly on trust.

But not everybody is trustworthy. One of the more painful experiences of my business life to date occurred roughly ten years ago, when my business partner and I made a terrible misjudgment about a senior executive’s trustworthiness. We trusted him, and over time he stole a great deal of money from us. Ironically, when we figured out what he was doing, the law, in all its majesty, was of negligible help – he had done our business great harm, and there was no salve for the wound. So that’s the dilemma: trust nobody and it’s impossible to do business; trust the wrong people, and you’ll be badly hurt.

Why do people generally like to deal with their own kind – as defined by overlapping considerations of family, race, religion, language, education, political party, social or economic class, business organization, age, gender and nationality? Because everybody feels more comfortable when they know what is expected of them, and what to expect of others. Everything is easier when expectations are mutually understood.

Social scientists suggest that one major reason that religions have always formed an important basis for society is that they create and promote bonds of mutual trust among large groups of people. Each religion has its own worldview and certain basic rules – e.g., the Ten Commandments – and an explicit sense that our people do it this way, and this way has been blessed by a Higher Authority.

Ours is, of course, a fundamentally diverse nation. As a nation, no race or religion binds us – but the ideas that animated our founders have their basis in the Judeo-Christian worldview regarding man’s individual rights, and his responsibilities to others.

Those ideas still resonate today. Indeed, the truths regarding natural rights given by God and not revocable by the state that our founders found to be self-evident are still the unifying force that bring us e pluribus unum.  Indeed, a belief in individual rights and freedoms can be considered the shared American religion. We all believe in personal liberties; where we differ, as we frequently do, is in what matters are properly subject to such liberties.

If we think of ourselves first and formost as members of the smaller tribal groups (race, religion, etc.), viewing all others as the other, our roads will be much more difficult to navigate than they are if we think of ourselves and each other as simply: Americans, with the other characteristics being of secondary or tertiary interest. Those who try to divide us for their own interest do great violence to the animating idea of our country, and to the trust that we must have in each other.

Crimes against individuals and property happen here, of course; but I think what is more remarkable is how often they do not happen. For over thirty years, I have lived and worked in urban and near-urban environments where I am often among people who are dramatically less well off than I. Even so, my only experience with a personal crime of violence or property (as contrasted with the acts business fraud alluded to earlier – perpetrated by an Englishman in England, as it happens) was when my family lost a trivial sum to a home break-in twenty years ago; my experiences in this regard are mirrored by almost everybody I know. Our society is remarkably law-abiding.

This generally law-abiding, or at least respectful-of-persons-and-property behavior, is not something to be taken for granted. We do not live in a police state, and the reality is that if those who are less well off routinely took advantage of their numbers to simply take what they don’t have, our lives would be very different. Under those circumstances we would certainly live in a police state, and we would all be much the poorer – both personally and financially – for the ways in which we would have to deal with each other.

And as for our relationship with our government: it has also been historically true of Americans that a very high percentage of us try to obey the laws voluntarily, even to the extent of doing our best to fill out our horrifyingly complex tax returns honestly. The same is not the case in many other countries: a friend of mine, of prominent Greek-American parentage, tells me that there’s an annual tax on self-reporting swimming pool owners in Greece and that when Google Earth was deployed it was discovered that whereas only 6,000 Greeks had reported owning private pools, something like 117,000 personal residences had them. Upon considering the observational powers of Google Earth, Greeks started buying dark green pool-covers. In some countries, tax evasion is an art.

Voluntary law-abiding behavior is, in a sense, the ultimate expression of the consent of the governed. Historically, the American view has been that We the People are sovereign, and the government works for us, so why wouldn’t we comply with the laws that we ourselves had made? My fear is that as the web of our laws and regulations becomes ever-more complex and overbearing – to the point where anybody could be convicted of crimes, and nobody can be sure where he or she stands, respect for and an instinctive obedience to the law is fading from our culture.

If there is a feeling that everybody is getting away with something, why shouldn’t each of us try to get away with whatever we can? How many times have I heard the cynical perversion of the golden rule: Do unto others before they do unto you? If you’re the owner of a Greek swimming pool, and you know that basically nobody pays that particular tax, you are unlikely to feel guilty about evading it, just as it’s dead certain that you often drive over 55 in 55 mph zones.

Bad laws diminish respect for the law, and the all-important sense that we trust each other to be law-abiding. Soon we could be Greece, both in the sense of being, y’know, broke, and in the sense that none of us feels a personal sense of responsibility about upholding our laws. The consent of the governed is a fragile thing, and it depends on a sense of mutual trust. If we lose that, we’re sunk.

American culture may also be more fragile than we think. David Dinkins, New York’s first African-American mayor, used to call the city a gorgeous mosaic. I think a better image for the city – and more broadly, our country – is that it’s a stained glass window of surpassing beauty, through which the light of liberty shines. Break it into its constituent parts, though, setting each against the others, and we’ll have only knife-like shards of glass.


M.H. Johnston


2 comments to Trust

  • Vivian Wadlin  says:

    Expectations are cultural norms.
    This quote from “Being Mortal,” Culture is the sum total of expectations and habit.” And another, “Culture kills innovation in the cradle.”

    I find almost all American problems that turn political are rooted in someone’s culture.

    • M Johnston  says:

      Yes, but culture is inevitably a part of our natures; the important question, it seems to me, is which cultures foster better behavior than others?

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