This morning, Cold Fury co-contributor SteveF has posted an excellent piece on a subject of great importance: trust. (Yes, I’ve ranted about it too.) Steve delves into the developments that allowed dishonest behavior to explode:
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.
Both of those developments are important, though for reasons that contrast in an interesting way. The first of them – the great increase in both population and population density in most of America – speaks of our limited ability to know others, whether directly or by proximate connection. The second one – our radically increased mobility – speaks of the ease of escaping the consequences of one’s actions. It’s worth a few moments’ thought to see how those influences collaborate to degrade our willingness to trust others.
Needless to say, those whose greatest desire is for power over us have exploited those developments to the hilt. Steve covers the most significant of those sallies as well.
What strikes me about the thing is the irony at its heart. The increase in our numbers was long thought to be a pure gain, to us individually and to the nation. More people would surely make America stronger, wealthier, and more secure. Moreover, until about 1900, Americans looking for safety and security moved toward the cities, because in the cities the resources and facilities that sustain and protect life were more available than in the rural areas. Plainly that’s no longer the case.
Who would argue that we would be better off if we were less free to move around? The privately owned automobile represented the greatest gain for individuals’ latitude of action in human history. Mass transportation methods add to that, of course, but the privately owned car – “an essentially anarchic device” (Barry Bruce-Briggs) – was and remains the key to individual mobility. It makes it possible for Americans to go to where they can get what they want, whether that be some good, some service, or just a little time away from our cares.
But as Steve has noted, those things also decrease our knowledge about those around us, and increase our ability to flee the consequences of our bad behavior. In their train have come government’s various encroachments on our freedom. Identification documents. Passports. Surveillance cameras. Huge police departments and investigations bureaus. Pervasive record-keeping. Ever more minute regulations of commerce and finance.
That these things have come upon us gradually, such that we’ve become sequentially accustomed to them, doesn’t reduce their weight on our liberty. For a cherry to top off the sundae, governments’ encroachments have amplified the problem. Governments thrive on an atmosphere of distrust. We should have expected this, for government itself is inherently untrustworthy. American governments have become ever more so as time has passed.
Yet what are aspirants to office best known for? Promises. What is the phrase that most plainly identifies the politician? Trust me.
A land frontier once allowed us to distance ourselves from what displeased us. That frontier has closed. Were the “high frontier” to spring open through advances in technology, we might see a new diaspora. Those of us determined to reclaim our freedom would venture outward, away from people, societies, and institutions we can no longer trust. There are surely enough of us who’d like the option.
We would travel in groups: knots of humanity whose members know and trust one another. Who would willingly brave the dangers of interplanetary exploration and settlement with persons he doesn’t trust at his back? The immense room convenient space travel would afford us would make it possible for such groups to spread out, re-establishing the barriers of distance that once insulated mutually distrustful societies from one another.
For the moment, the technology isn’t there. It might never come. Our gravity well is deep. Newton’s Third Law has proved unbreakable so far. Barring unforeseeable developments, if we are to re-establish the high-trust society that we once knew, it must be here on Earth.
Steve’s essay provides some pointers. Please read it all.