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trust – mistrust

Who Can You Trust?

by Wendy McElroy

handshakeNot government, not financial or religious institutions, not the media, not health or educational ‘services’, not corporations, not the legal system or police, not the military, not experts or academia. After you eliminate the State, who is left? Society – the dynamic of average people who produce and trade honestly through their own efforts.

A determination to personally disconnect from the state does not involve rejecting society. Quite the opposite. It means recognizing how destructive the state is to everything peaceful and productive, and deciding to live as much as possible within society rather than within the state. The decision can be risky because the state does not willingly cede authority over a single head that it claims as property. And your citizenship, your very birth brands you as part of the State’s herd. How do you minimize the risk of going rogue while embracing the advantages of Society?

The question is especially important for those who wish not merely to survive but to prosper and be happy. In disconnecting from the State and probably from that chunk of society that interacts intimately with the State, it becomes important to find people you trust. These are people who will respect your privacy and your decision to live off the political grid. You don’t need to have a manifest of friends but everybody should have at least one person he can trust.

In his book The Geography of Bliss, journalist Eric Weiner reported on a global quest through cultures to discover what made people happy. He found a key ingredient and common denominator to be “trust”: a basic trust in others, whether those people are many or few, whether they are a partner, family, friends, or community. Humans are social beings with a need for acceptance, companionship, sex, and love. Even strangers enrich us immeasurably through knowledge, trade and culture. Some level of trust is necessary to happiness.

But what does trust mean? It can refer to a belief that a casual acquaintance will deliver the service or good for which you’ve paid. In other words, you believe he is reliable in the narrow area in which you interact. Or trust can refer to an intimate in whose character you have such confidence that you give him (or her) a power of attorney, which is immense power over your life. Ideally, you will have at least one person whom you can trust so profoundly.

A good social network is comprised of concentric rings of people whom you trust to varying degrees or in varying roles within your life. Each ring of person is valuable and enriches your life. The outer ring consists of those you casually trust to barter goods or to pick up mail when you’re on vacation, such as a neighbor; if this trust is betrayed, there is no great loss and people on this ring are easily replaced. The next one might include those with whom you socialize or work because of a shared value or goal, such as libertarianism or the publishing of a magazine; the betrayal here is more significant. For example, it often involves others in the social or professional circle and so impacts your relationship with them. As the rings draw closer to the center, the trust becomes deeper until finally (if you are lucky) there is that person or persons whom you can trust absolutely.

In drawing up the rings of trust that apply to your life, there are danger signs to note about who to include, and standards that are valuable to impose. Only a vague sense of each is possible to present in this brief space.


Do not invest more than a casual level of trust in people you know only casually. In today’s whirl of social media, people “fall in love” with texters they’ve never met in person. Fall in love, if you wish, but do not give out passwords, information about assets, the number of guns you own, or anything else that leaves you legally vulnerable. For one thing, the identity of the person with whom you are texting is not clear.

Do not trust anyone who is indiscreet in his speech or behavior. His character may otherwise be stellar. But if a gossiping or drunken friend indiscriminately blurts out everything you tell him – that you own guns or gold, that you are building an extension to your home without permits, etc. — then you may as well throw that information into the wind or publish it on the front page of the New York Times. Don’t take someone’s promise of confidentiality seriously if he spills everything he knows about others to you. This person’s judgment cannot be trusted.

Do not trust anyone who displays a vindictive streak no matter how close you may feel to him at any given moment. Many years after the period in question, I learned that one reason my husband trusted me; he witnessed first-hand how fairly I treated the property division in a bitter split-up with a former partner. Other alienated exs act differently. Many if not most informants to the IRS and other soul-destroying agencies are people who bear grudges and are settling scores. And few grudges run as deep as those held by a man or woman scorned.

Doubt anyone who is overly friendly or who suddenly fits perfectly into your life. Such people may be or become informants who would gladly pocket a handsome reward for turning you in to the authorities. Or they may be people who would be happy to plunder your precious metals when you are away for a weekend. Don’t be paranoid but don’t be a sucker either.


Look at people’s track records and how they deal with others. Give more weight to what they do than to what they say. Are they fair in their assessment of and actions toward mutual acquaintances; do they cheat in business or on a romantic partner; do they take responsibility for their own actions; have they ever lied to you about anything more important than their age? You might want to overlook or discount some bad behavior but at least take note of it and make the ‘free pass’ a conscious decision.

Give weight to a person’s actions but also listen to what he says and watch his body language as he says it. If a person’s actions and words contradict each other, then something may be amiss. He could just be socially inept, of course. Nevertheless, you should proceed with heightened caution until you get a better sense of the dynamic of what’s happening.

Watch how a person treats someone he views as an inferior, such as a waitress. That’s how he is likely to treat you if he ever enjoys a significant advantage in your relationship. Equally, watch how he treats the opposite sex. Some people are almost Jekyll and Hyde in how they treat one sex versus the other. If you are in a committed relationship or if you have a circle of close friends upon whom you depend, consider whether you want to introduce a dissident factor into a situation that is working well.

Give preference to dealing with people for whom others you trust have vouched. But never allow any endorsement to replace your own judgment. If the recommendation turns out to be a poor one, then reassess the judgment of the friend who made it. Take his recommendations less seriously in the future.

Trust your gut. If something seems “off” about a person but you can’t enunciate ‘why’, then don’t worry about being fair or giving that person “the benefit of the doubt.” Give yourself the benefit of the doubt, instead. Proceed with the assumption of civility, as you should with everyone, but be cautious in dealing with the person.


People need other each for trade, education, culture, companionship, sex and love…among many other of the intangible things that enrich life. Perhaps the most important factor in having trustworthy people in your life is to be a person in whom they can have confidence. A trader will come back again and again if you deliver what is agreed upon and do so with a smile. So, too, will the people with whom you ‘trade’ emotionally. (The word ‘trade’ here may be inappropriate as acts of kindness are not performed in an expectation of reciprocity.)

Nothing attracts or inspires decency in others as much as manifesting decency in yourself. Mistrust is a survival mechanism but trust is as well. You need both.