Trust is confidence that an obligation, explicit or implied, will be honoured. The motivation for keeping faith in this way is varied. It may be love, or a promise, or commitment to a professional standard, or a matter of going along with the purpose of the institution to which you belong. In Lean Logic, trust is a condition for the web of reciprocal obligation which builds community, and for the relationship between a nation and its people.

And it is a critical capital asset, distinct from the other forms of capital; it is both producer and product of social capital. It is a necessary condition for the existence of a human ecology in which decisions have meaning. But the existence of trust in this sense cannot be assumed. Evidence that it exists can be inferred from signals, such as a person’s participation in a cooperative project, long association, kinship, language, clothes, shared culture, ceremony, humour or ritual.

The significance of trust was borne out by the economist Francis Fukuyama who, in the 1990s, studied it as a condition for poor countries’ economic development. His conclusion was that the nations which have not yet succeeded in climbing onto the ladder of development will not do so until they have established the trust in their commercial relationships without which enterprise will almost certainly fail. The problem, he writes, is that this essential framework of trust takes a long time to build: “communities depend on mutual trust”.T29

In the Lean Economy, judgment will be shaped by the overriding priority to do nothing which could weaken the trust on which integrity depends—and “integrity” in this context means social cohesion and authenticity, citizenship that brings with it little incentive to tell lies. It is a fragile asset. The dismantling of social capital which has occurred during the period of the market economy has fractured that trust. The fractures could open up as the climacteric unfolds.

At the same time, trust contains anomalies and complexities which are sometimes overlooked:

1. It is not always a good thing; indeed, it may be immoral, as in the case, for instance, of a person who is trusted by Jack the Ripper; or where there is mutual trust between a logging company and its public relations advisers. And yet trust between close associates—honour among thieves—feels (to the thieves) like a good thing, part of the essential morality of being.

2. Criticism of a person on the grounds that “he has forfeited my trust” is dubious: it may be that you have forfeited his; it may, in fact, be no more than a pretentious way of saying that you no longer agree, and that you are claiming your right to the high ground.

3. Having a strong motivation to trust someone is substantially irrelevant to whether you can do so.

4. The absence of trust is self-fulfilling—that is, people who are not trusted have no incentive to be trustworthy. Regulatory institutions can deconstruct trust and, with evolutionary logic, make themselves necessary.T30



As the Reith lecturer Onora O’Neill highlights, there are widespread calls for greater transparency—and accountability, and respect for human rights—as conditions for the existence of trust.T31

In principle, the idea that the decisions taken by public institutions such as hospitals and local government should be capable of explanation in terms of established, standard and transparent procedures is, of course, reasonable. It provides protection from allegations of unfairness; it saves time on detail. But there are problems. Full transparency means that someone who took no part in the decision-making can know (or find out) pretty well everything relevant about the decision and how it was arrived at. There is a lot to be said for that, but when everything about a decision is clear there is no need—no space—to take anything on trust.

In fact, there are many circumstances in which transparency does not and cannot exist. The central point of the question of trust is whether you can trust the person to make a good decision—rational, with positive consequences for the people involved—even though you don’t know the full circumstances of the case, and may never know. You may not know the person or people involved; you may not even know that the decision is made.

It is in those circumstances—in which neither transparency, nor indeed accountability and human rights, apply—that the question of trust is not only crucial, but arises also as a universal and daily event. We may not know, nor have any particular expectations about, what others are going to do, even in cases where their actions will significantly affect us, and especially in new situations where no established principles exist. You do, of course, have reasonable expectations about what your airline pilot will do, and what the driver coming in the opposite direction will do, and you can call that “trust” if you like, but if you think that is the extent of it, you are missing the point, and “expectation” might be better. Trust is about the conditions in which, despite the lack of transparency, accountability and a significant contribution from human rights, you are confident that the other person will get it right.T32

A second problem with transparency is that it can affect the quality of decisions. There is a raft of decisions that can be based on routine procedures (think of medicine, for instance). But there are also judgments requiring the application of imagination and thought, which will on that account involve the acceptance of some degree of risk, for which the person who has applied the thought will bear some responsibility. Routine decisions are transparent; the imaginative ones are not. Given a commitment to risk-reduction and the rules of transparency, the only option is to stick to the routine. When something unexpected happens, it will fall outside the scope of the routine decision, so transparency will get it wrong. The needed risk is not taken.

“Well-placed trust”, O’Neill states, “grows out of active inquiry rather than blind acceptance”. For Lean Logic, that’s well-placed expectation. What we will need in the future is reasonable confidence that, when people whom we scarcely know do unfamiliar things in circumstances which we cannot guess at, and which may not be what we would have done, there is a good chance that what they do is right.T33

And now for a third difficulty with transparency. On closer inspection, it turns out that there is no such thing. Decisions in a transparent system depend on premises and presumptions which are quite arbitrary. Principles which seem to be too obvious to need any defence: “I think children should be allowed to follow their natural inclinations”—the platitudes of good intention, the avoidances of judgment, the presumed meanings of fairness and of moral authority—are in fact propositions which, if they were reached by argument, would depend on a complex, closely-analysed case. The reason that kind of argument is so dominant is not that it has been constructed, but that it has been adopted as self-evident. But the self-evident is a shedload of marginal assumptions, previous judgments and prejudice.

Transparency, then, trivialises trust down to the level of expectation; diminishes decisions to the level of the safe, the routine, the easily-defended; and reinforces faith in the self-evident, which is subject to no examination at all. As suggested in the entry on tradition, there is a role for unargued assumptions in the enduring structure and practice which makes a society, but in the evaluation of individual cases in medicine, in education, in our relationships—in the case-by-case world of casuistry—there is a choice to be made between deliberation and ideology. Far more helpful than transparency is . . .



Congruence is the gift of being able to talk to people revealingly and without reserve. This is critical: it is the quality, or “realness”, which the psychologist Carl Rogers explores, describing it especially in the context of teaching. The effective teacher feels able—permitted—to teach as a real person; she enters into a relationship with the learner without presenting a front or a façade, or being defined by her official role. Her feelings are available to her; she comes into direct encounter with the learner, meeting him on a person-to-person basis. She is herself. That doesn’t make her right, but it does mean that she believes what she is saying. And, in return, the learner will not feel he has to be strategic: he, too, can simply say what he believes: there is congruence.T34

Suppose two people want to be in contact, to communicate with each other, and to continue this contact for a period of time. Rogers summarises,

The greater the congruence of experience, awareness and communication on the part of one individual, the more the ensuing relationship will involve: a tendency toward reciprocal communication with a quality of increasing congruence; a tendency toward more mutually accurate understanding of the communications; improved psychological adjustment and functioning in both parties; mutual satisfaction in the relationship.T35

The medium of this is personal. It is hand-made:

The person-centred approach is built on a basic trust in the person. This is perhaps its sharpest point of difference from most of the institutions in our culture. Almost all of education, government, business, much of religion, much of family life, much of psychotherapy, is based on a distrust of the person. . . . Teachers, parents, supervisors must develop procedures to make sure the individual is progressing towards the goal—examinations, inspections, interrogations. The individual is seen as innately sinful, destructive, lazy, or all three—as someone who must be constantly watched over.

The person-centred approach, in contrast, depends on the actualizing tendency present in every living organism—the tendency to grow, to develop, to realize its full potential. This way of being trusts the constructive directional flow of the human being toward a more complex and complete development. It is this directional flow that we aim to release.T36

If that is happening, trust has a chance of coming into being—and it both needs, and issues, signals that say, “This is a situation in which it is safe to trust.” That does not come free; it has to be earned, and it takes us straight into the colourful, irregular world of humour and play, of shared experience, history, friends, complaints, institutions—the grammar by which people become intelligible to each other, and which gives people and events their meaning.

Under signal-free, person-free, instrumental conditions, congruence is not only not there, it is actually seen to be unethical; it is ruled out. It cannot be imposed and, for a concerned government, whose limitations it reveals, the whole concept is unacceptable. But the absence of congruence means the absence of trust. A system constructed like that has brittleness built into it: it can bear no weight. It will break often, and then catastrophically. Fukuyama’s “essential framework of trust”, once burning, burns fast.

Building congruence back into our culture is so counter to our present presumptions that it may never happen. Eye contact, common interest and humour, character, good faith and a tactile, gentle culture are society-enabling assets. If trust and the congruence on which it depends do recover, it will be because these are assets which—perhaps aided by new morsels of spring drifting in with the Big Society—the Lean Economy begins to reconstruct, with intense and determined creativity, and with its people gradually recovering their confidence.T37


Related entries:

Betrayal, Reciprocity and Cooperation.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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