Row of men during the depression New York CityMy grandfather Avery lived a rural life in the central Missouri hill country. A man who worked hard to raise two sons and a daughter before and during the Great Depression, people knew him as someone whose word you could trust under any circumstance. In 1961, at 71 years of age, he told me wistfully that a kind of golden era in America had passed – an era when Americans could do business on a handshake. In his maturing years, Avery never had to sign contracts filled with pages of indecipherable jargon. Customers and creditors only wanted his handshake, and his word.

Some thirty years later, Francis Fukuyama, in his book Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, referred to the concept of “social capital” as the ability of people to work together for common purposes. Just as financial capital facilitates productive capacity, people facilitate social capital by trusting each other to fulfill commitments. Such trust requires integrity and justice as its underpinnings.

Following a decline in social capital after World War II, an often bewildering array of control systems and legal requirements gradually superseded trustworthiness in public dealings. The unhappy result found people occasionally alienated from, mistrustful of, and compromised by each other and their institutions. Fukuyama warned that this loss of social capital meant a decline in the American economic system. He wrote:

The decline of trust and sociability in the United States is also evident … in: the rise of violent crime and civil litigation; the breakdown of family structure; the decline of a wide range of intermediate social structures like neighborhoods, churches, unions, clubs and charities; and the general sense among Americans of a lack of shared values and community with those around them. … Already the United States pay significantly more than other industrialized countries for police protection… (The U.S.) also pays substantially more than does Europe or Japan to its lawyers, so that its citizens can sue one another. Both of these costs, which amount to a measurable percentage of gross domestic product annually, constitute a direct tax imposed by the breakdown of trust in society.

In God We TrustMore than a half-century ago the Baha’i author Horace Holley astutely viewed this same social fragmentation as weakening the fabric of American culture: “The individual has become engulfed in struggles of competitive groups employing different weapons to attain irreconcilable ends.”

The Founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, places trust and social capital in the proper perspective:

Trustworthiness is the greatest portal leading unto the tranquility and security of the people. In truth the stability of every affair hath depended and doth depend upon it. All the domains of power, of grandeur and of wealth are illumined by its light. – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 37.

Baha’is see trustworthiness as essential for the stability, the well-being and security of the entire human race. This ennobling quality signifies reliability, loyalty, faithfulness, uprightness and honesty. And trustworthiness, as my grandfather Avery demonstrated, underpins the essence and the practice of justice.

Whether viewed socially, economically, financially, politically, regionally or nationally, injustice destroys mutual trust. The widespread, unjust exploitation of people tears at the fabric of society and contributes to impotent rage and volatile acts of defiance.

More than a century ago Baha’u’llah shed light on this deep question:

No light can compare with the light of justice. The establishment of order in the world and the tranquility of the nations depend upon it. – Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 28.

My grandfather lived a life of moral integrity and justice. In his close-knit community, neighbors became life-long friends. In difficult times you could count on them to come to your aid. Through their closeness, whatever you needed they would willingly give. Of course, those Missouri hill-country folks lived in simpler times, and in an imperfect world. But somehow they grasped the idea that trust, justice and moral uprightness lie at the core of human happiness. If they could impart their life experience to our present generation, they would ask us to simply treat each other with fairness, and then see what happens.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

3 Comments

characters remaining
  • Barney Leith
    Aug 31, 2013
    Excellent article, Barry. What a contrast between your grandfather's time and place and where we are now in terms of the loss of trust. Trust is, as Bahá’u’lláh teaches, fundamental to the functioning of society. Sadly we've moved from a society based on trust to a society based on contractual relationships - great for the lawyers, but punishing for ordinary folk and, ultimately, corrosive of social capital and the functioning of society. It may not be quite as bad here in the UK as in the USA, but almost!
  • Janice Rossing
    Aug 30, 2013
    Thank you for this powerful reminder of a concept so fundamental to living in true freedom and joy in our individual and collective lives that we overlook it so long has been its absence.
  • Ziaollah Hashemi
    Aug 29, 2013
    What a beautiful concept to teach our children!