Monday, August 24, 2020

489 Power and trust

Earlier in this blog I defined power as the ability to affect choices of others. A negative form is to reduce the choice options of someone, or impose a choice. This is the usual understanding of power, as coercion, control or manipulaton, restricting freedom. A positive form of power is to widen the number of options and leave open the choice, increasing freedom. This is freedom in the double sense of negative feedom, limiting external constraint, and positive freedom, yielding access to resources.

I had not connected this to the notion of trust, but do so now. One of the distinctions in trust is that between general or ‘prima facie’ trust, based on culture and personal experience, which is automatic and regards anyone who is unknown. It is surveyed in an international trust monitor, tracing differences between countries. Note that this trust can be tacit, based purely on habit and experience, or more explicit, based on moral conviction and an inborn aptitude of empathy, supported by mirror neurons.

The other form of trust is ‘reflective’, with a rational analysis of reasons why people might be trustworthy or not[i]. I analyzed the latter in Nooteboom (2002). I recognised the general notion of reliance, which can be based on control, with legal arrangements such as contracts and reputation, outside the relationship, and hierarchy, hostages, and incentives, rewards and punishments, within the relatioship. This is the exercise of negative power of coercion and enforcement.

Next to such control, reliance can be based on trust, in prima facie habitual (dis)trust and trust based on more explicit morality in a culture, outside the relationship, and personal bonds of trust with family, friends and clan, within the relationship.  Here we have trust as yielding room for action, freedom, and taking the risk of that. It is a form of positive power, in giving freedom, room for action. So, I agree with Pedersen that trust can be a form of positive power.

I compared the US and Japan concerning trust in business, and concluded that in the US the main sources of trust are legal governance and reputation outside the relationship and hierarchy within it. In Japan the main sources were hierarchy and personal bonding in the clan, within the relationship. General, prima facie trust outside the relationship was weak. [ii]

Positive trust can deteriorate in hypocritical manipulation, in giving choices selected or designed to the advantage of the giver of choice. Will one also give choices against one’s material interest? It can also take the form of leaving choice free except for what is forbidden.

The main point here, and also that of Pedersen, is that trust can be aligned with power if one gives a positive connotation to it.

However, some people, and under current conditions of corona many people, like to be told what to do: It relieves them from insecurity and stress of choice. An authoritarian society as China seems to be doing better in fighting the corona virus than the liberal West. The messiness of Italian institutions and the laissez faire of US politics appear to be penalized. Tendencies towards nationalism, inward looking, central authority and suspicion seem to be strengthened. Kierkegaard noted that freedom creates a fear and trembling, a fear of doing the wrong thing. Being told what to do may be comforting, relieving this fear and the pressure of responsibility. And when the choice is between freedom and prosperity, the outcome is not always certain.

There is also the distinction between trust in competence and trust in intentions. An authoritarian, decisive government strengthens trust in its competence, it seems. That yields a temptation towards negative power. That seems to manifest itself in Hungary, at the moment.                 

[i] Esther Oluffa Pedersen, 2015, ‘An outline of interpersonaltrust and distrust’, in: Sue Liisby, Esther Oluffa Pedersen & Anne Line Dilsgård (eds), Anthropology & Philosophy, p. 104-117.
[ii] Nooteboom, Bart, 2012, ‘The dynamics of trust: Communication, action and third parties’, in Masamichi
Sasaki & Robert Marsch (eds.), Trust: comparative perspectives, Amsterdam: Brill, p. 9-30.

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