07/07/2011 05:15 pm ET | Updated Sep 06, 2011

The Importance of Social Trust

The last sentence of the Declaration of Independence states: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." Considerable trust in one another is expressed in this sentence. Members of the older generation may say: "We never locked our doors." This old fashioned expression of social trust may seem foolhardy to us. However, locking doors is a small example of a long term troubling social trend in the United States, and perhaps the world at large, the decline of social trust.

Modern mobility and increasing individualism inevitably make us strangers. We may have been taught by a parent, with good reason, not to talk to strangers. Of course, we cannot turn back the clock to an imagined blissful time. Nevertheless, social trust is essential to a cohesive society. Without social trust we find ourselves only trusting immediate family and selective tight-knit groups. Even the closest groups have been penetrated by contemporary affinity frauds. In the absence of social trust "the other" is feared or exploited because it is anticipated that the same will happen to us. Whenever we cheat or are cheated, the "bank balance" of social trust declines. It takes radical change to reverse a social situation of competing groups not trusting the motivations of one another. One such radical call for change was to "love your enemies."

Psalm 5:9 describes enemies in the following manner: "Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; their heart is filled with malice. Their throat is an open grave; with their tongues they tell lies." There can be no social trust or cohesion when both the outward actions and inward motivations are not viewed as credible. If one is cut-off in traffic and especially ascribes the worst motivations to the other driver, road rage may result. Is our social trust declining in the economic and political arenas so that actions are perceived to have resulted from the most malicious of motivations? We hear more public discourse today that impugns motives of "the other." What is the likely outcome of this trend?

Whatever one thinks of the broken windows of criminology, it is correct that we take our behavioral cues from what appears normative. Consequently, we must ask what behaviors are considered normative in our contemporary social, political and business environments. Do we expect to be exploited and see evidence of exploitation? These anticipated norms influence our level of social trust. The Golden Rule provides an individual based approach to restoring social trust. Living the Golden Rule is not easy nor is such action going to rapidly increase social trust. This takes individual sacrifice and time. We are back to the difficult demands that the call to personal integrity places upon us all, myself included.

Individuals with a mass media forum in our society may increase or decrease the expectation of social trust by their actions and statements. Media attention, however, may provide a personal road to fame, power and wealth. An easy way to obtain media attention is to be shocking by essentially declaring that opponents have a "heart ... filled with malice." However, no dialogue or social trust can exist when "the other" is perceived as completely evil. Perhaps a reader may think that this essay overstates both the decline of social trust and the consequences that flow from it. If so, reader, do you lock your doors and how aware of our society do you believe the individual is who does not lock his or her doors?

A corrosive cynicism develops when it become the expectation that "not a word from their mouth can be trusted." There will be no mutual "pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." Instead our society will experience an unprecedented time of trouble. The most difficult disaster for a society to overcome is not bad weather or hard economic times but the loss of social trust. It is imperative that we act with individual integrity and, by the collective power that individual actions may produce, increase the "bank balance" of social trust.