[February 8, 2020] Growing up in the rural Deep South, my grade-school teachers often told us stories about the history of the United States. For little kids like my friend Wilson and me, we remember being mesmerized by the Benedict Arnold story and how he betrayed our fledgling nation.
We were raised as Christians, attending church everyday Sunday morning and Wednesday evening. Everything was about teaching what was right and wrong and how to recognize evil. We learned how to behave correctly, respect others, and treat them as we would like to be treated. The Golden Rule was big. Stories were a big part of how that message was delivered.
As part of our upbringing, it was also the duty of our parents to teach us about what not to do. We learned about bad behavior and that some actions were worse than others. Some behaviors are so terrible that our little minds had difficulty understanding them.
Later, while attending college, these ideas came flooding back when I read Dante’s Inferno. Dante, who was trying to understand sin and evil better, believed that the worst possible human behavior was a betrayal. My college English teacher was good at her job (can’t remember her name, unfortunately). She said that what enables long-term, successful human cooperation is trust.
I’ve come to believe that trust is the fundamental, the most essential resource for people. Over the past few years, there have been several economic publications that focus on the economic utility of trust. In societies where the default economic presupposition between trading partners is trust, those societies tend to be rich. This richness is an outcome regardless of whether the nation has natural resources, a large population, or its education level.
As long as trust is the basis of a human relationship, the world – past, present, and future – is simple and non-threatening.1 Trust is safety and security. Betrayal, on the other hand, forces us to rethink our very being. For Dante, betrayal (or as he called it, treachery) was the ninth and most profound, most sinful of sins. No wonder that, as children, we could not “see” the depths of Benedict Arnold with his betrayal of our nation. He, like many across time, has his reputation damned for all eternity.
- Trust is an unbelievably powerful economic force, maybe the most potent effect. Relationships are also predicated on trust. Trust allows us to overlook the complexity of human behavior and feel comfortable, satiated, and contented. As long as people do what they say they will do, we can take them at their word, and their word simplifies them and, importantly, our relationship.