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28.2.03

One of the major divisions on the left these days seems to be over the issue of how trust in institutions is developed. This creates a divide between hierarchists and communitarians. Perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of classical liberal thought is the idea that the legitimacy of a social system (particularly governments) derives from the consent of the members. These days both sides of any debate can be expected to appeal to some form of freedom and accuse their opponents of coercion.

Trust is the attitude that breeds consent. People will consent to a system that they believe will act in accordance with what they value -- either their interests, their moral principles, or some combination thereof. Trust goes beyond consent, however. People may grudgingly consent to an undesirable situation out of lack of alternatives or lack of energy to go on fighting. But these people do not therefore trust the system.

There are two major bases for trust advocated by the modern left (I'm focusing on the left because I know it better, and because I want to emphasize that the two schools of thought cannot be labled one liberal, the other conservative): ability and participation. Ability is the criterion for New Deal-style leftism. Its guiding principle is the division of labor, allocating tasks to people who have greater skills or expertise in certain areas. For example, consumers can't be expected to research the possible risks, side effects, and degree of effectiveness of every drug. So they rely on a combination of FDA standards and recommendations from trained doctors (whose expertise is itself certified by state licensing). People allow their decisions to be in part made for them by others because they have confidence in the ability of others with more skills and qualifications. In many ways this is a necessary side-effect of the complexity of modern society.

Critiques of an ability basis for trust have grown up in response to the shortcomings of that framework (and perhaps also due to the obvious failure of strongly statist [and at least nominally communist] countries such as the Soviet Union, which threw ability-hierarchical schemes into question and made it politically unwelcome, particularly in conversations with the center and right, to espouse them). Among academics, communitarian participation-based regimes of trust are in fashion, coming out of studies of social movements (epitomized today by the antiglobalization movement) and radical democracy. Proponents of participation see the relinquishment of power to another, essential to ability-based trust, to open the door to abuses. For many, ability-hierarchical schemes are no more than a false consciousness designed to dupe people and allow an elite to sieze control. Where hierarchy was once seen as "being taken care of," it was now derided as (at best) paternalism. As an alternative, these critics argue that trust can only be generated by the ability of the governed to participate, and exercise power, in the making of decisions. A system in which people can do little more than pick which set of bureaucrats to trust undermines any sort of trust by alienating people. One of the central themes of this perspective is that process is as important as outcome -- a policy chosen by a scientist at the EPA is not as good as the same policy developed by a cooperative community consultation.

While communitarianism and participation-based trust are currently in vogue among the cutting edge, eventually things will swing back toward ability (barring the development of a new alternative or a new basis for institutional legitimacy other than trust/consent) as the dominant paradigm. I have hinted already at some critiques of radical participatory schemes. Most people cannot invest the energy necessary to participate effectively in every decision, so participation can begin to seem like a burden. This leads people to be more easily manipulated by those who are selling simple answers that advance their own interests. In this sense social movements are a poor model for social organization, as they are a self-selected sample of the people most inclined and able to make a strongly participatory model work, and they are motivated by a specific goal rather than a general desire for a well-run society. As is my wont, I think the proper course lies somewhere in the middle. Ability-based delegation of some sort is necessary for most day-to-day social functioning, while open channels of participation should be available and pursued when necessary and for certain crucial decisions (such as major policy changes).

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