My Word Is My Bond

by Stephen McAndrew

trustThe basis of all human transactions is trust.  Trust that others will keep their word and do what they said they will do.  Let me rephrase: in a well-functioning society the basis of human transaction is trust that other people will keep their word.

In a society where some use power or force to get what they want, or others deceit, there will be considerable costs to us as individuals, and to society as a whole. 

You pay the plumber to fix the sink trusting the leak will be fixed; you take a job trusting you will be paid; you sign a business contract trusting your partners will hold up their sides of the bargain; you get married trusting your spouse will be faithful.

There are ways to mitigate the costs of the inability to trust others.  If we are working for someone else we can ask to be paid up front (although others may be reluctant to pay up front afraid there will be no incentive to finish the project).  We can bring those who fail to live up to their promises to an independent body for dispute resolution.  Couples can enter into pre-nuptial agreements. But, of course, these mitigations cost time and money.

It is extremely difficult to enter into any relationship where parties do not feel bound by their word.  This is true whether we are talking about romantic or business relationships.  At first, everyone makes wonderful promises and aspires to great things.  But if everyone decides to do what best suits him or herself when things don’t go as planned, the venture will not be long for this world.

For example, if two parties think they have come to a business agreement only to arrive at the next meeting to find that the terms they thought were set in stone are being renegotiated, the deal will not get done.  The same is true for romantic relationships.

The Social Contract

Thinkers have argued we adopted this culture of trust for our collective wellbeing.   For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau referred to it as a social contract, and Thomas Hobbes argued that we surrender our freedom to act to a sovereign to avoid chaos.  The general idea is that it makes sense to keep your word so that others will keep their word to you also.  Indeed, it does make sense.  Of course, if you can break your promises and hold others to their obligations you will be in even better shape.  But, as we all realize if everyone were to do this, no one would get what they want. 

Therefore, if fewer people keep their word causing fewer people to trust others, society will inevitably break down.  In such a case we would witness a failure of personal and familial relationships, business relationships and the failure of authority. 

Today, we see high levels of family breakdown, we live in increasing economic instability, and trust in government is at all-time lows…

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