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"They're out to get us!" On trust, distrust, and organizing for change

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People no longer trust Congress, the President, the courts, the media, corporations, political parties, and other institutions of society. People even doubt science and medicine.

Edvard Munch's The Scream

In this precarious, frightened state of mind, people are susceptible to fear-mongering, to despotism, and to scapegoating. They turn to religion, to crazy conspiracy theories, to despair, or -- if they have a job -- to increased workaholism and avarice.

Conservatives put their faith in the magic Invisible Hand of capitalism and in America's military and economic power. They think self-interest and competition are all that matters.

Progressives know that in the absence of effective government regulation and policing, wealth and power tend to concentrate, private corporations produce dangerous goods and pollutants, and the "tragedy of the commons" takes effect. There are many public goods -- the courts, the police, the environment, public health, and education, to name just a few -- for which we need government and taxation. Considerable central planning is desirable to efficiently and equitably allocate resources (e.g., for energy policy and health policy). The Invisible Hand of Adam Smith often drops the ball on your foot and punches you in the face.

But can we trust government??? Often despots or corrupt private interests take over the reins of government.

Indeed, many leftists are as distrustful of the government as they are of corporations. Some progressives on OpEdNews sound like libertarians. Many of the people who promote conspiracy theories (for example, about 9/11 and vaccines and government takeovers) believe that both the government and the corporations are out to get them.

The far Left merges with the far Right.
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So if you can't trust corporations and you can't trust government, who or what can you trust?

We mustn't trust just ourselves and our families. (Alas, many of us can't reliably trust even our families or ourselves.) We need to try and organize into bigger units of cooperation: clubs, communities, political parties, advocacy groups, blogs like OpEdNews, corporations, and governments. It's tough.

Progressives believe in the power of human reason and in the possibility of human cooperation. They believe that organizations and government can work. They believe that people can join together, put aside their differences, and work for the common good -- or at least for specific shared goals. Cooperation is in our genes. It makes us happy, allows us to transcend our small egos (progressivism as spirituality).

This is an idealistic, perhaps quixotic ideology: that people can cooperate. But people do cooperate. A lot. Government does work, in some situations and in some societies. Here too, often. People often do cooperate in all sorts of organizations (including good and bad corporations, as well as crime gangs). Even conservatives cooperate, all too well! Unfortunately, cooperation is easiest when there are ethnic or religious or economic ties -- see Book review: Mark Buchanan's The Social Atom. Humans are clannish.

Still, despite their optimism about cooperation, most progressives aren't socialist or communist. Most progressives believe that corporations and private wealth are OK, within limits. The best approach is a mixture of government and private initiative. Neither pure laissez-faire capitalism nor pure state-run socialism will work. Organizations at all scales are needed.
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Self-similar Koch set: similar structure at all scales

If government is too powerful, people will become lazy and unproductive, and government will become tyrannical. If government is too weak, private corporations and individuals will accumulate too much wealth and power. Pure communism (= a libertarian utopia!) is a fantasy.

The real, hard question isn't: what's the best balance between private and public? We need both.

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DFA organizer, Democratic Precinct Committee Officer, writer, and programmer. My op-ed pieces have appeared in the Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and elsewhere. See and for my writing, my (more...)

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"They're out to get us!" On trust, distrust, and organizing for change


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a true pie in the sky article,cooperation will sol... by liberalsrock on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 11:05:28 AM
Maybe we are screwed, but even if it takes generat... by Don Smith on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 11:36:13 AM
I enjoyed reading Mr. Smith's article.I used to th... by Steven G. Erickson on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 3:18:05 PM
... flee anywhere, because when they get done with... by Pesty on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 3:33:34 PM
Before individuals can group together for their co... by Edward Ulysses Cate on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 12:02:02 PM
first begin with us. We have to be less narcississ... by Pesty on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 2:49:58 PM
The late great Louis Armstrong said there were two... by Jason Paz on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 1:44:55 PM
Was the point of that to illustrate the violent si... by Don Smith on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 2:12:08 PM
We can trust government to be government! Governme... by Alice Lillie on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 2:08:24 PM
Without government, we'd be hunter-gatherers. Than... by Don Smith on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 2:19:17 PM
with the exception of claiming economic knowledge,... by John Sanchez Jr. on Thursday, Oct 15, 2009 at 8:40:51 AM
I gave your comment a thumbs up, and I was going t... by roy lutz on Friday, Oct 16, 2009 at 5:20:20 PM
They hate government, so we should all duke it out... by Starla Immak on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 2:25:02 PM
happens by accident, its planned down to the small... by Pesty on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 3:11:39 PM
That's why it's so ironic to hear all these Repugs... by Bia Winter on Sunday, Oct 18, 2009 at 12:49:34 PM
People distrust government and the CONgress, and t... by steve scheetz on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 3:38:23 PM
See my response above "Oh, but government often DO... by Don Smith on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 5:16:48 PM
Government at a low level is still working, grante... by Pesty on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 8:51:19 PM
Great and thought provoking article, Don. Hope vs.... by Richmond Shreve on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 3:47:56 PM
those who control the press. I saw that against ... by Pesty on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 9:18:29 PM
During my lifetime I have seen our government supp... by Harvey Solomon on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 4:28:15 PM
I disagree that there is no light at the end of th... by Pesty on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 9:09:54 PM
Don makes some excellent points. I made many of th... by Scott Baker on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 7:24:50 PM
I agree about the bailouts: it's something that pr... by Don Smith on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009 at 10:34:56 PM
Conservatives put their faith in the magic Invisib... by KMGuru on Thursday, Oct 15, 2009 at 9:02:56 AM
The real, hard question should be - how did we get... by KMGuru on Thursday, Oct 15, 2009 at 9:31:00 AM
I keep thinking of Lou Reed's song, "Busload of Fa... by Perry Logan on Friday, Oct 16, 2009 at 5:48:54 AM