The Social Commodity

Jordan Taylor Swaim
12 min readJul 18, 2021

What can make nations fall? What can throw a country into civil war? How do societies descend into economic privation? Among other things, the one element that can make or break a civilization is the social glue called trust.

Though difficult to measure, the amount of peace and prosperity within a society is heavily correlated with the amount of social trust which exists. The more trust within a community the less violent it will be and vice versa. High trust societies tend to have less crime and higher productivity along with more stable governments, whilst low trust societies tend to experience a myriad of problems ranging from corrupt institutions to economic depravity to high rates of violent crime.

The problem with low trust communities is that once trust begins to fall it can snowball and get out of control even to the point where everyone sleeps with one eye open and you live in a state of constant suspicion of your neighbour. A prime example of this would be the Soviet Union where one’s own children could turn you into the secret police for expressing even the mildest of anti-government sentiments. Some historians have noted that many of the eastern European countries that were part of the former Soviet Bloc struggle economically to this day because of a severe lack of trust in their respective societies, and it may not be until at least one or two generations have passed, when those who lived through communist rule, have died, that perhaps social trust can be rebuilt.

Trust may very well be more precious than oil, gold, or modern technology. Without this cherished resource how can one make financial arrangements, agree on contracts, take out loans, build businesses, rely on the integrity of a justice system or be certain you will not be exploited by your government? Without a sufficient level of trust it can become impossible to plan for, or invest, into the future. This is why corporations will pass on large capital projects in resource rich nations with unstable governments as they cannot reliably predict the future in these regions. Perhaps the government will attempt to seize your assets, maybe civil war is likely to break out, or drastic and frequent changes in tax policies. This kind of instability produces high levels of distrust from potential outside business. Domestic investment also suffers, as those within the country are also not willing to take the risk of starting a business if they cannot trust the relative stability of the country they are in.

It is rather remarkable how much modern market economies rely heavily on trust, and how much they are rewarded for this in the form of economic prosperity. How many billions of transactions happen on a daily basis with almost nothing going wrong. The vast array of exchanges of goods and services based simply on a handshake, or giving someone your word. You can order something second hand off of the internet and it will arrive at your place when the seller said it would, in the condition the seller said it would be. You can hop into an uber with someone you don’t know from Adam and be virtually guaranteed to be %100 safe. You can eat at almost any restaurant and be confident in the fact that the risk of getting food poisoning is infinitesimally small. We actually put so much trust in complete strangers on a regular basis for nearly all of our basic wants and needs that we don’t even notice it. We make leaps of faith that would make people of a bygone age nauseous.

Indeed it is hard to deny that trust is a key to having a healthy and thriving social order. When trust breaks down, relationships fail, businesses go bust, and societies fall. But how am I defining trust? Well for this discussion I will be using the dictionary definition which goes as follows: reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.

The Components of Trust

I am going to borrow the concepts from Stephen Coveys book: The Speed of Trust, to extrapolate on the components that make trust possible.

All trust begins with integrity. Integrity covers a broad swath of character traits that are essential for building strong relationships. Having integrity means that you do what you say and say what you do. It means owning up to your mistakes if you make them. It means always being honest and forthright no matter how uncomfortable it might make you or others. It means you are the same person when no one is looking as you are when surrounded by a crowd of people.

Those who have weak integrity will ultimately not be trustworthy. They will cut corners, develop a bad reputation, and have difficulty maintaining both professional and personal relationships. Any time you are caught in a lie, cheat on a partner, fail to live up to your word, you damage trust. Maintaining high levels of trust over long periods of time can have a compounding effect that can lead to greater future opportunities as well as more enriching and fulfilling relationships. But a lack of integrity can significantly hamper this compounding effect. One dishonest decision can destroy years of built up trust. If a judicial system, corporation, religion, or any number of other social institutions are perceived as being corrupt, they will not only be completely ineffective, but people may be actively antagonistic towards them. Building trust and showing that you have integrity is how you build a brand, and selling your trust capital, as it were, can be highly lucrative.

In the stock market, if a company is found to be fudging their numbers, or even being noncompliant with regulators, this breach of trust can have massive impacts on their stock price and bottom line. If a restaurant makes one of their patrons sick, it can sink the business. During the college admissions scandal of 2019, where well connected people were found to be bribing universities to get their children accepted, many of these institutions suffered a severe decline in enrolment because trust was broken.

As the saying goes; “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. The second and final component to building trust is competency. It’s not enough to simply be honest and well intentioned when making agreements or commitments, you must also be able to deliver. Think of a “trusted” brand. Let’s say Nike shoes, michelin tires, or wilson sports equipment. It would not suffice for these brands to just have integrity, they also have to deliver. They have to give you high quality, and use able products. I know for a fact that if I buy a wilson basketball, it is going to do exactly what I need it to do and it is going to last me a long time, and I won’t need to check the reviews or do extensive background research because I trust this brand. Think of your favourite restaurant, would it be your favourite if they only executed good food 50% of the time? Probably not. If you hired the most honest and humble plumber in the world, but he only fixed your plumbing once in a while, or god forbid he made things worse, his integrity would be irrelevant because you would need him to complete the job with competence.

Governments too, tend to suffer heavily in this area of trust. Though many states around the world certainly lack the integrity component of trust, the vast majority of people complain more about government incompetence than anything else. Top down, centrally managed economies like Cuba or Venezuela, for example, do not suffer for lack of good intentions but rather their inability to deliver on promises due to incompetence. As an economy is an incredibly complex and delicate eco system, it is an impossible task for it to be planned by one institution or planner. To centralize the means of production, and maintain high levels of productivity for years on end would be a superhuman feat which no single person has been able to accomplish. This is also why black and grey markets flourish in countries like these, because the white market is so inefficient, unprofitable, and bogged down in bureaucracy that participating in it fully would damn you to certain destitution and poverty. In many ways, the cold war was fought by western powers and their market economies by simply waiting out the Soviet Unions centrally planned economy. With the exception of proxy wars, the west never fired a shot at the USSR because they believed if they waited long enough that their economies would crash, and evidently this was a good bet. The west understood the dynamic in which a government bureaucracy is only able to process so much information, and turn so many dials in the economy, and account for so many variables before it is overwhelmed and rendered inert.

When a population no longer has enough confidence in it’s leaders, systems, or administrations to carry out basic tasks it risks becoming a powder keg of discontent which could lead to rioting, civil war, and even genocide. This could explain why governments which do few things very effectively carry far more trust with their people than governments who do many things very poorly. It is difficult to overstate the role that social trust plays in cohesion of a society and how that trust can be quickly eroded by widespread incompetence.

The Science of Trust

What we know about trust has been studied extensively in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and biology. There are indeed mountains of literature both in the social and physical sciences which focus on this aspect of human behaviour. Trust is more than just an abstraction, there are in many cases ways to measure and experiment with it, particularly with recent innovations in brain scans. Trust appears to be an adaptive trait that the human species developed, which was especially important in hunter-gatherer societies which would often consist of no more than 150 people. In these social orders, you would need to maintain very high degrees of trust with your clan in order to survive. You had to have confidence that other members of the tribe would not steal your belongings while you were gone, or fail to warn of nearby predators and so forth. This could explain why the vast majority of murders are crimes of passion which are committed usually by a romantic or business partner. Our feelings of betrayal run deep in our psyche as an evolutionary defence mechanism which can often incite us to violence. Though crimes of passion may appear irrational to us, perhaps it made more sense in a primitive society where the cost of having untrustworthy members of the tribe would have been far too high, and could have been the difference between life and death, hence the need to have no mercy for the betrayer. But as with many things in modern civilization, our biology has not evolved as fast as our culture.

Like many animals, human beings produce the hormone known as oxytocin. It is widely understood to be the chemical that helps us to bond with friends, lovers, and children. Oxytocin is often associated with touch, laughter, smiling, and even deep emotional connections. In order to have the highest degrees of trust, this chemical is a necessity. It also has an antidepressant effect as well as curbs feelings of fear and anxiety. This is important in relation to trust as fear can make humans very reluctant to trust others, especially those in the out-group, or outside of the community.

When it comes to building trust, we are constantly up against our own biological imperatives and psychology. We have a negativity bias which helped us to survive in the wild, but is far less useful in today’s society, and can be detrimental to building trust. The trust hormone oxytocin, if you will, is typically for your family or kin, not for strangers you’ve never met, but we can learn to build connections with people leveraging our own physiology in order to build stronger bonds and trusting relationships. Even if someone has low integrity, if they have a connection to you they are less likely to deceive you or hurt you in any other manner.


Finally, I would like to make some remarks on the dark side of trust. As with many concepts that I cover, they are not always fool proof and can present numerous pitfalls. Trust is no exception. Indeed, we can be too trusting, and put too much blind faith into people, governments, institutions, or even ideas which could lead to immense suffering and pain for society. There is no shortage of get-rich-quick schemes, cults, superstitions and grifters of all kinds who would be willing to take advantage of those who are easy to manipulate. From the food pyramid to pyramid schemes, our trust can be co-opted and betrayed in many ways. Learning basic critical thinking and having a healthy degree of skepticism are great soft skills for everyone to develop and employ. Do not just accept any claim that is made with impunity, interrogate it, research it, and exercise curiosity. Simply being curious in and of itself can be a bulwark against scam artistry of all kinds. Remember, when anyone makes a claim of what is best for you or your community, the burden of proof is on them to prove it, not on you to disprove it.

The Covid19 pandemic of 2020–21 has presented the world with a crisis in trust. In my view, the crisis began with the now infamous Imperial College COVID infection and mortality model that was developed by Neil Furguson. This model predicted that 1–3% of the world’s population would die of COVID 19 even under the best of circumstances and with lockdowns. To be clear that would be between 75 to 225 million deaths worldwide. At the time of recording this, there have been about 4 million deaths logged, more than a year and a half into the pandemic. Even if there were far more deaths that have not been properly recorded, it is hard to imagine that the total number of deaths could have exceeded 8–12 million on very liberal estimates. Obviously the deaths and suffering of these millions of people is a tragedy, but is hardly the cataclysm which was predicted. Furgeson, on a number of occasions compared Covid to the spanish flu of 1918, which killed 50 million people, when in fact it was more comparable to the Hong Kong Flu of 1968 which killed between 1 and 4 million people, this being a similar portion of deaths per capita adjusted for population growth as Covid. It’s one thing to make a model, it’s quite another thing entirely when the World Health Organization and the majority of governments around the world take such a model as gospel truth and follow without question Fergusons call for oppressive and indefinite lockdown measures. Governments then proceeded to institutionalize distrust by falsely claiming that asymptomatic spread of the virus was extremely common, which has now proven to be very rare (as with most other respiratory illnesses) making people irrationally afraid that any seemingly healthy person could be carrying and will probably give you a deadly virus. You are sick until proven healthy. Guilty of being a carrier until proven innocent, as it were.

The virus is being used as a pretext for a massive surveillance apparatus to track people’s movement and collect their private health information. One would only have to use their imagination to wonder how these new powers governments are granting themselves will be used and abused. Not to mention setting a precedent to forcibly or coercively impose experimental medical procedures on people through vaccine verification and passport programs. And if all this did not erode our foundation of trust, the carte blanche censorship of dissenting views on lockdowns, mask mandates, or vaccines certainly promises to do so. The suppression of using Ivermectin, a completely safe medication that has been used on billions of people for decades, as a viable treatment for COVID 19 is nothing short of criminal. Despite Ivermectin's near miraculous work on turning Indias exploding Covid cases completely around, the corporate press and tech oligarchs have worked in tandem with politicians to make sure the drug is not used in the west and anyone who promotes it is punished severely.

Like many defining events in history, the pandemic, or more accurately, the response to the pandemic, will most certainly change the course of world history, re-shuffling the proverbial deck. We are at a crossroads and extreme risk of a complete disintegration in social trust and harmony, as the lies and incompetence continue to be exposed, the belief in scientific and governmental institutions will erode. Commerce will suffer, innovation will stagnate, and perhaps even civil wars will be a threat in countries that have long been regarded as highly stable. It is my deep concern that the institutions which have failed us will double down on their deceit, rather than admit they were wrong and try to make it right, in effect ensuring that trust can never be rebuilt. The frustrating part about this is, is that they will do it because they see that trust in the ruling class is in decline so they will expend massive amounts of resources, influence, and time into trying to discredit those who expose them in an effort to regain trust, all the while this will backfire and make trust descend further into the abyss.