Trust no one

Yesterday I read an interesting column by Ben Stein at the New York Times website, entitled “The Hard Rain That’s Falling on Capitalism.” It’s about the miracle of American capitalism through most of the last century, and how it only works when the playing field is level, which it increasingly is not. The “hard rain” of the article’s title is runaway corporate greed and government complicity.

Here’s Stein’s central thesis:

[I]n capitalism, the most fundamental building block is trust.

When yeoman farmers sent their savings to banks in London and Glasgow and Paris, they had to be able to count on it not being stolen. That was what allowed capital to be accumulated and deployed, and for the entire world economy to take off.

(Incidentally, the taking-off of the world economy in just this way during the 17th and 18th centuries is one of the big backdrops for The Baroque Cycle [and it’s about a million times more interesting than that makes it sound].)

I always thought the whole point of everyone being equal under the law is that you don’t need trust. Trust is what they used as the basis of commerce in the Middle Ages, and look how well that turned out.

When the state enforces every proper contract, trust is irrelevant. If you sell your car to some guy across town, it doesn’t matter that he’s a slimeball whose check later bounces and who won’t then return your calls. The state’s got your back, with process servers, sheriffs, judges, jails, guns, and more, all working for you.

You might say this requires people to trust that the government will do its job protecting your rights and your property. But there again, trust is the old model. Serfs could do no better than trust that nobles wouldn’t come and club them over the head and make off with their women. In the new model you don’t need trust, you just vote the bums out of office when government stops doing its job. (This is why capitalism pairs so essentially with democracy.)

That’s the theory, anyway. The reality is, of course, infinitely more subtle. To vote the bums out of office you have to be able to trust the vote. To trust the vote you have to trust the companies providing the voting equipment (until someone comes up with an economical trustless voting system). To trust the companies you have to trust that the government will punish any misdeeds swiftly and decisively. This is where things get circular. What if the ruling party and the voting equipment makers choose to collude? There’s the rub. More broadly, what hope is there for democracy or capitalism when business and government decide to work for each other — which seems to be the sole ambition of the Republican party, in almost as many (few?) words — and cut out the little guy? As Ben Stein writes,

Empires come and go. Economic systems come and go. There is no heavenly guarantee that capitalism will last forever as we know it.

Trust is great for interpersonal relationships. It’s terrible as the basis of governments and economies. Until we can entirely banish trust from those systems, it can be exploited, as it has been so shamelessly these last few years.

We know what we can trust Republicans to do. Ben Stein is a notorious Republican. That’s why it’s ironic that, by his own argument, a vote against Republicans is a vote for capitalism.

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