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Posted May 11, 2006

Book: Trust
Author: Russell Hardin
Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, 2006. Pp. 206

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Can we trust our elected representatives or is public life so corrupted that we can no longer rely on governments to protect our interests or even our civil liberties? Is the current mood of public distrust justified or do we need to reevaluate our understanding of trust in the global age?

In this wide-ranging book, Russell Hardin sets out to dispel the myths surrounding the concept of trust in contemporary society and politics. He examines the growing literature on trust to analyze public concerns about declining levels of trust, both in our fellow citizens and our governments and their officials.

Hardin explores the various manifestations of trust and distrust in public life — from terrorism to the Internet, social capital to representative democracy. He shows that while today’s politicians may well be experiencing a decline in public confidence, this is nothing new; distrust in government characterized the work of leading liberal thinkers such as David Hume and James Madison. Their views, he contends, are as relevant today as they were in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and we should not, therefore, be distressed atthe apparent distrust of twenty-first century government. On a personal level, Hardin contends that the world in which we live is much more diverse and interconnected than that of our forebears and this will logically result in higher levels of personal trust and distrust between individuals.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Over the past decade or so trust has become a major worry of many scholars and pundits, very many of whom think trust is in decline in several of the advanced democracies, including Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. To say that I trust you in some context is to say that I think you are or will be trustworthy toward me in that context. You might not be trustworthy toward others and you might not be trustworthy toward me in to me in other contexts. If we think trust is declining, therefore, we must suppose that trustworthiness, or at least perceived trustworthiness, is declining. The value of trustworthiness is that it makes social cooperation easier and even possible, so that its decline would entail losses of cooperativeness. Most of the voluminous literature on declining trust sees it as a major problem independently of any account of trustworthiness — but surely, if there is a problem here it is with trustworthiness.

This point is commonly ignored by many scholars, who see our problem as a failure of trust rather than of trustworthiness, and who argue for increasing trust — somehow. Of course, we do not simply want to increase trust per se, because we should not trust the untrustworthy. If we attempt to cooperate with you on some matter and you take advantage of our efforts, we should not readily risk cooperating with you again, and we should not trust you on the relevant matter. I want to discuss what it might mean that trustworthiness seems, at least superficially and also when examined more carefully, to be in decline. And I want to discuss what it suggests we should do to increase trustworthiness and cooperativeness — if we can or should do anything.

. . . There are, of course, many uses of a term as attractive and seemingly good as trust. It would take us off track to do a deep conceptual analysis of various uses. But one small bit of linguistic history might be interesting. The word trust in English came into use in the medieval era. It developed with the word tryst in Middle English. At that time tryst had a very simple meaning as a noun. Our village might mobilize to catch game — especially smaller game such as rabbits. Most of us would gather at one end of a wood or grassy meadow and would drive the game to the other end. At the other end, you might stand tryst, meaning you would be prepared to knock the rabbits in the head with a club. In that usage that’s all the word meant. Tryst was a role. Forms of that slowly took on two quite different meanings: the modern words tryst and trust. It’s easy to see why linguistics might have gone those seemingly contrary ways. Standing tryst well meant to be trustworthy in the role one agreed to fill. And having a tryst with your neighbor’s souse behind the barn also entailed trust between you two misbehavers even while you violated the trust of your neighbor. So even in its linguist origins, trust was a complicated affair. It still is. At least one person — your neighbor in the tryst — might not think trust is always so clearly a good think. Trusting someone can set you up for cooperating with the other even in vile enterprises, as in the supposed honor among thieves.

Table of Contents:

1. An age of distrust?
2. Trust and its relatives
3. Current research on trust
4. Social capital and trust
5. Trust on the Internet
6. Terrorism and distrust
7. Liberal distrust
8. Representative democracy and trust