Trust In a Free Society

Few people associate the word “trust” with free markets. In fact, for many, economic freedom is synonymous with cheating, lying, and thieving. Were it not for regulations, and lots of them, people would be at the mercy of the “powerful,” most notably, businesses. Further, we can’t trust most of them to make good decisions for themselves, so we have to regulate their private behavior by giving them the right “incentives.”

Some of us beg to differ. Most of our daily transactions contain within them a high degree of trust that the other party is acting in good faith. The cook wants us to enjoy a safe meal. The doctor wants us to get well. It is not the law that makes us trust that by and large we live in a world of kind and cooperative people; it is the knowledge that people have every reason to behave cooperatively and honestly.

But there are thieves out there! Dishonest merchants! Filthy kitchens! Mmmmmm…yes, that would be true. Yet compared to the number of transactions we experience daily in which things go well, these are few and minor. I somehow think laws are not the main reason.

Confucius once said that laws punish after the fact and so do little to correct the root problem. People left to their own affairs tend to do quite well. Similar to the Taoists, Confucius thought that a good leader does little. He/she lets affairs take their natural course rather than meddling.

The natural course in our present-day world is freedom to interact as we please, recognizing those same rights in others. Let government set a few basic laws to enforce those rights and let the rest take care of itself. Let us trust that most of the time, not always, people will do the right thing. Let us also trust people to run their own affairs. No need for government to dictate what we eat, where we go, or how we spend our money. Thanks, but we will make it just fine.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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