The Trust Engine

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Somebody recently tweeted something to the effect that being “anti-Capitalist” was a form of absolutism. This person also implied that being anti-Capitalist was hypocrisy in that an anti-Capitalist enjoys the benefits of Capitalism while being “pious” about its flaws. Consider this:

I’ve enjoyed computers ever since I got my first one in my early 20s. It worked great. I was awed by what I could do with it and gaming on it was mind-blowing. I loved that thing.

Why don’t I own it anymore?

Sure, it worked. The software that ran on it was pretty good. It was fast for its time. But times changed. As the software became more capable, the system couldn’t keep up. So I upgraded. Does that mean I didn’t enjoy or benefit from my first computer? No. It simply means that, as software and networking became more sophisticated, new problems arose in software that had to be addressed. Security became a concern. On top of that, the desire for people to do more propelled evolutions in software that often required wholesale overhauls of their code bases. The new software was more robust but also placed greater demands on my system. Eventually, those changes were so extensive that I simply had to buy a newer, faster system. Luckily for me, PC hardware companies understood this reality and kept making their components faster and better.

It was simply evolution.

I’d say, like most people who enjoy computers, I have fond memories of my first real one. I’d also guess that there is not one of us who would trade in what we have now to go back to using it.

This is an easy enough argument when it comes to computers so why is it so difficult to understand when it comes to Capitalism? It’s like any other man-made system. It will work great for awhile but start to show flaws. Those flaws will be patched and patched until it is no longer practical to fix them. Then, a newer, better, more robust system will replace it.

But, oddly enough, this observation isn’t really why I wrote this post. It was just the thought that motivated a deeper exploration. I realized that I was going through life but not really understanding it. What is the essence of our existence?

I didn’t find the meaning of life but I think I did come to a few pretty significant conclusions. I came to understand what the single most important component of modern society truly is:

Trust.

It is the single most valuable component in society. It is the literal foundation on which all of civilization is built. From the very first time that two non-related humans decided to cooperate, trust has been the most relevant survival trait. Without it, society literally could not exist.

Why is this important? Because, by understanding that trust is the single most valuable component in society, you start to understand why people, at the apex of humanity’s wealth and dominance on this planet, are unhappy. Guys like Max Roser and the late Hans Rosling wave around statistics showing how much the world supposedly has improved. It’s compelling evidence. But they are completely missing the point.

The only way we can survive and prosper truly on this planet is not only by trusting one another but also by valuing the building and sustenance of it as our core ideology. My next statement may seem controversial but, on reflection, I think you will agree:

Trust is the only true religion.

If you explore the tenets of most religions, especially the major ones, trust is their foundation. The very power of the “God” concept is the belief in an objective arbiter who punishes those who violate social trust and rewards those who honor it. Indeed, what is a “belief”? It is trust in any conceptual entity without the benefit of evidence. Even our secular laws and institutions… every single one is built on the premise of trust.

Assuming I’m correct, then consider the following extrapolations:

  • In order for a system to be trusted, it must produce uniform outcomes. In other words, it must produce near identical and consistent outcomes based on context for everyone or everything in that system;
  • The only true “sin” or crime is that which violates, undermines, or destroys trust;
  • The key criteria for trust are consistency, plausibility, predictability, and reproducibility. Any system or institutions that does not fulfill those criteria will be rendered invalid.

When I look at the world, what I see is a fundamental erosion of the trust structures. This is a problem that Capitalism is not solving. Indeed, it is now exacerbating it. When equal circumstances do not produce equal, consistent, or, minimally, equitable outcomes, any system designed to produce those outcomes is fundamentally flawed. A system does not have to produce universally bad outcomes to become invalid, it only needs to produce inconsistent ones.

In any system built on trust, the most corrosive element in it is the “bad actor.” I don’t mean in a theatrical sense; an actor is simply someone who takes action. A bad actor is one who violates, undermines, destroys and, otherwise, exploits trust systems for personal gain to detrimental effect. The irony of bad actors is that many are pretty good actors in the theatrical sense.

Which brings me to this next point: one of the reasons I oppose incrementalism, at least as it relates to social progress, is that it fundamentally validates the bad actor’s actions. Remember, in order for a system to be trusted, it must produce consistent outcomes for everyone. Incrementalism is both a tacit acknowledgement and an accommodation of the bad actor in the form of tolerance. The opposition to incrementalism is rational because trust is undermined in any system where uniform outcomes under contextually similar conditions aren’t possible. By nature, such a system is fundamentally flawed.

I could continue on but I hope those who read this will take the time to relate it to their own experience. Think of the institutions with which you participate, the people with whom you interact. Do you trust them? What bad actors, in person or institution, have you engaged?

I think when you examine it more closely, you will begin to understand why there is so much discontent in the world. Look even closer and you will see that many pathological systems endure largely because, even by producing consistently negative outcomes, they create trust.

Should Capitalism ever fail, it will likely be simply because people no longer trust it.

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