Trust is confidence that a person will reciprocate in a favorable way to an overture on your part. The person will return a phone call, listen to your pain, bail you out with money when called upon to do so. Trust is what makes the social world go round. But to be clear: trust is not an expectation in that you can command it or presume it. Rather, trust is built up over time. If you are constantly late for appointments, a friend will not rely on you to be on time and so make plans accordingly, maybe to meet in a restaurant where he can catch a cup of coffee while waiting for your arrival rather than on a street corner and so left adrift in the middle of winter. The friend knows he is indulging you for your lateness. Only when you show up regularly on time will the friend trust you to do so and take it as a surprise rather than an offense when you are late, being late an offense in that you have not given the appointment sufficient attention or priority to plan ahead to be on time. Maybe the person who is regularly late is someone who over schedules, but all that means is that he or she is in a position to stiff people or that he or she is egotistical enough to think that other people have time on their hands. Trust, then, is akin to capital. It can be built up or squandered, and a person can hoard it or try to dispense with it, but your trust account is always measurable, by friends and intimates, and, through your reputation, by anyone else, just as if you had a trust score calculated by an agency to go along with your credit score.
Trust is also of central importance in serious relationships. It may well be that love creates relationships, there being a certain glow about a person, based on class and station, as that is infused with sexual energy, that allows the person falling in love to think and in fact to have a deep perception into the character of the beloved, to see the beloved as an agent of free will whose nature is expressed in gestures, voice, the way she wears her hair or how she smells, just as she may take special note of his voice inflections or how he smells as an entry into his soul and, knowing that, is apt to think highly of him, even more highly than he or she think of themselves, and so is committed to the relationship, even if the relationship is transgressive, as it is between Romeo and Juliet and Humbert and Lolita. Romance works against the social grain. But trust between married people is something else. It builds up gradually over time. It is a confidence in what can and cannot be relied on in that person, how they will handle situations, as well as a loyalty that can withstand many shocks.
It may be, as William Goode argued fifty years ago, that love is what gets you over the rough spots in establishing a family. But whether or not love is functional, trust is certainly functional for family life as two people who know one another only intimately take up the joint job of managing a family, which is the work engine of just about all civilizations. Families, as a unit, are an economic machine in that they work together to plant and reap, the mother bringing lunch to her husband in the field, or working together at a cottage industry, all this changing with the industrial revolution, when men went off to work in factories, though whatever each made became part of the common pool of income that sustained the family in its way of life, never mind the aristocrats who worried about how much money was entailed to the family as a whole rather than to one or another offspring. The family also serves as the domestic unit in that people live together, supply one another with the regular irritations and supports that people tied to one another do. Families are also the vehicle for the procreation and raising of children and the early providers of their education. So families, based as they are on trust and not just custom and law, each become distinctive entities and they sustain rather than subvert the society, the latter being what love does. Look at how quickly the young lovers set up house, buy furniture and bedding, form friendship circles, arrange for periodical visits to in laws, negotiate whose work is primary and where they will live, as well as negotiate their own intimate relationships. It is not that this transition between love and the appurtenances of married life is so easy; it is that it is a transition people seem so wholeheartedly to embrace. And so trust is ubiquitous, the social glue that explains matters both trivial and significant.
Trust also plays a key role in economic life as well as in other social structures that are larger than the family. Trust is the basis for exchange rather than the other way around. You are able to trade rifles with the Indians in exchange for furs because you know, or have reason to believe, going in, that the Indians will not just kill you and take your rifles. They and you build up trust for the very sensible reason that both sides want to continue the relationship, restricted as it is to matters of trade. That economic motivation may abide and account for the fact that there were trade routes from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe long before there was any political force to guarantee them, but there was always the chance, in any individual case, that not so hidden resentments of conflicting races and conflicting cultures would not intrude on rational deliberation and, in some moment of fury, the Indian would reach for his tomahawk or the white trader would use his rifle and confiscate the furs. Some trust had to be established, whether that was in a look or in the body language while people shared a meal or in the offer of some less favored wife as a bed warmer for the lonely trader. Trust can be particular rather than invested in the status or wealth of a rich man who offers you hospitality and so the assurance that his household will be both warm and cordial and that he will not kill you in the night.
Trust is also placed in institutions. A student has to trust that his teacher is more knowledgeable and more acute about the subject matter of a course than is the student and it takes a good deal to dissuade the student from trusting in the teacher even though the teacher may get a number of things wrong. It is a brave and foolhardy student who goes into class presuming that a teacher is not to be trusted rather than used for whatever value the teacher may provide, which may not be very much at all. Similarly, you have trust in your doctors or at least in the hospital complex that has hired them because of their reputation and because your experience tells you that the doctors associated with that hospital seem knowledgeable and to the point, though that may be bedside manner rather than competence. It is hard to make judgments on your own and so you rely on the brand name, as you do with Sony or Ford. What else can you do? In general, Stanley Milgram was just wrong in saying that people showed themselves naive when they supposedly tortured people under the instructions of their psychology professors. The students were right in trusting that American psychology professors would not really be asking them to torture people. They were right to trust the brand name, in this case the reputation of a profession. We all trust brand names all the time and only uneducated people do not know that diploma mills are shams or think they are getting away with something by getting a sham credential that, in fact, cannot generate employment.
Questions of misplaced trust are the stuff of drama because it is a clear way of revealing a faulty character or some other surprise development in a relationship. Falstaff trusted his friendship with Prince Hal, not understanding why things would be radically altered between them when Hal became king. Hamlet is trusted to act as the dutiful son who had absented himself from court for a long time and so not much interested in court intrigue but only in girls and fashion. He surprises everyone by becoming nettlesome. Anne Eliot, in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”, should not have trusted her heart to Mr. Wentworth unless she was going to go through with what seemed, at the time, an unfortunate even if romantic marriage, and rued her decision to break up with him for what might become the rest of her days. Samson, clearly enough, trusted Delilah.
In real life, whether to trust, once that decision is made, may be a decision not easily relinquished because one has become so identified with it, as did all those voters who trusted that Donald Trump could be trusted to represent their interests because he was so belligerent in advocating them when he campaigned for president, and people will not turn on him because they now have nowhere else to go with their disappointments and with their underlying sense that the basis of his hatreds were the same as theirs. Can trust, once given so hopefully be easily dissuaded? Is the capital used up or just turned into a call for reinvestment, come hell or high water?
The overall point about politics is that Hobbes was wrong. Political life is not a truce between ravenous parties, that truce enforced by a government that has the will to enforce the truce lest the worst in the population comes out. Rather, the basis of government is trust. The population will do what the government wants, which is pay taxes, show up for a draft, abide with traffic and zoning laws, because the population believes that, for the most part, and certainly with regard to most ordinary things, the government does things for the public good, as that has been demonstrated over and over again in a person’s own dealings with government. You know a government to be untrustworthy when you are always being asked for bribes or when it does not protect you from gangs. Machiavelli was also wrong. It is far worse for a ruler to be untrusted than it is for him to be feared. Fear will keep you in line for a little while or at least until some replacement enters the field, but a ruler who is untrusted cannot mobilize his population, get them to work efficiently, provide more than the appearance of loyalty, while trust will lead to hosannas and hard work and volunteerism of the sort Stalin could only dream of in his advocacy of the Stakovite worker. Remember that the United States won World War II because the population worked double shifts (and were well paid for it) and thought that the privations of rationing were justified, and thought their leadership in warfare was in the hands of generals and politicians who were both competent and wise, never mind setbacks. Germany, it should be added, also had that at least till Stalingrad because the Germans trusted Hitler, based on his history of successes. When, on the other hand, you are part of a population that has reason to distrust the government, which includes minority populations in the inner city who have poor health and educational services and a lack of jobs, then minor insults, such as a police shooting that was not really necessary, will be treated with a riot rather than with a shrug.
So trust is what hold democratic and other advanced industrial nations together and that is why the democratic election process is so important. It builds up a trust in a candidate and in the system, that trust eroded ever so slightly when an officeholder lies or changes his or her mind a bit too readily. Trust means confidence in an underlying message, however, and so President Trump retains the confidence of his supporters who like his belligerent tone and opposition to non-whites. To my optimistic mind, however, trust in the United States does not easily melt away and will therefore outlast the present administration.