The Outstater: Trust and Grow

November 12, 2015

A LOCAL COUNCILMAN was discussing what the recent municipal elections might mean for economic development, the subject of this quarter’s Indiana Policy Review. He surprised us by suggesting that his town’s fortune would not depend on any of the expansive plans being floated by the regional economic-development group. It would depend on civic character, specifically trustworthiness.

The argument may seem naive for the times but hear him out. Trust is what facilitates commerce, he notes, and communities in which the various political players can be trusted to subjugate personal ambition (not to be confused with being in agreement) have an advantage in attracting jobs and investment. It lifts the cap on an economy, a cap held in place by mistrust and envy.

It is the manifestation of Harry Truman’s observation: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Hoosiers would seem well positioned in this regard. Many can claim to be of pioneer stock (wow, you don’t hear that phrase anymore) and being trustworthy was critical on the frontier. It was not so much an attribute of civic character as it was a prerequisite, an absolute definer, an unconditional requirement.

In the 1989 mini-series, “Lonesome Dove,” Gus McCrae (Robert Duvall) is about to hang Jake Spoon (Robert Urich), his friend and fellow Texas Ranger. Jake had fallen in with the Suggs gang, psychopaths who massacred a group of “sod busters,” fellow citizens, that is.

Gus: “You know how it goes, Jake, you ride with an outlaw, you die with an outlaw. Sorry you crossed the line.”

Jake: “I never seen no line, Gus; I was just trying to get through the territory without gettin’ scalped.”

Gus: “I don’t doubt that’s true, Jake.”

The line that Jake crossed was one of trust. In pursuing his own interest regardless of others, he proved himself untrustworthy, a capital offense on the frontier. He had to hang.

Today we just vote them out of office — or try to. There is evidence that this strategy works. A U.S. Navy study following World War II found that officers from the Midwest and Great Plains outperformed those from other regions of the country. An analysis credited their habit of trustworthiness (one presumably carried into their political organizations).

In any case, character seems to matter. There were few other states that matched the number of local businesses growing into national corporations in the years immediately following the war.

And the Austrian sociologist Helmut Schoeck, in his prize-winning work “Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior,” considers the key to Western civilization this Hoosier-esque ability to manage envy and its outrider, mistrust. Moreover, he says that our Midwestern tendency to “cling” to religion plays a part:

“The historical achievement of the Christian ethic is to have encouraged and protected, if not to have been actually responsible for the extent of, the exercise of human creative powers through the control of envy.”

What does this mean for Indiana communities worried about their economic future?

The young councilman’s goal for his town is twofold: 1) To convince the Democrats to resist building their political careers on race-baiting and factionalism; and 2) to instill in Republicans the need to assert economic truths, particularly those that advise against the public subsidy of prurient interests.

Hey, he didn’t say it was achievable, he said it would be advantageous.

 

— Craig Ladwig

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