The world in which we live is steadily becoming increasingly cynical, or at least it seems. We’ve come to expect our politicians to be corrupt and dishonest. We’ve come to see our businesses as greedy and unsympathetic to the plights of their workers. We view each other through tinted lenses that paint us as red or blue and we assume all strangers are inherently dangerous. We’ve lost our trust in our leaders and in each other. And as the level of trust breaks down, a self-fulfilling prophecy is born. We expect a politician to be corrupt and when we find one who is it validates our premise, reinforcing our view and perpetuating the impression. Trust further erodes. It is the same with how we view corporations, or teachers, or policemen, or neighbors, or each other. But the stitching that holds together the fabric of our society, of any society really, is an ability to trust each other. Without trust, society becomes nothing more than masses of people in the same spot, each looking out only for themselves.

But what is trust? How did we lose it? And more importantly, how do we rebuild it again? Although their are different levels of trust, the basic concept of trust can be defined as having a sure reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing to do that which they have been tasked to do. Whether one is referring to a trust between a parent and a child to adhere to a rule or provide care or implying the duty of an elected official to place the community needs above their own personal aspirations, trust relies upon individual honesty and integrity. We learn, through actual or vicarious experience, who we can trust. As children, we are brought into this world with an instinctive trusting nature. In order to survive, we must trust our mother to care for us, to nurture us. And unless this trust is breached early in life, we gain a capacity to learn to trust those around us. We also, as we age, gain the capacity to evaluate whether the recipient deserves the trust we give so freely. Those who promise things they can’t deliver soon lose our trust, whether they are our sibling, our employer, or our governmental leaders.

For most people, trust is not an absolute condition. Indeed, it is probably difficult to name more than a few people you might consider completely trustworthy. Human nature, being what it is, almost guarantees that at some point in our lives, we will damage a relationship of trust with someone, either purposely or unconsciously. A friend needs help desperately and we promise that we will lend a hand, but at the hour of need, we are called away to something else. The trust has been damaged. We may not lose the friendship, but we’ll probably not be asked for assistance again. Your friend may still trust you to pay your share of the dinner tab, but it may not go much farther than that. Efforts to rebuild that trust require us to go above expectations and work twice as hard to regain what may have previously been an unquestioned facet of a relationship.

Trust between friends or family is the first layer of trust that builds and stabilizes a society. Without this basic level of interpersonal trust it is impossible to expand the concept of trust into society at large. Societies are held together by a common goal and a trust that each person is working towards that goal with their own contributions. So as we learn to trust on a personal level, and as we acquire those traits that enable others to trust us, each individual becomes responsible for becoming a contributor to the greater society through employment or public service, by paying taxes and adhering to common laws, and by doing that which they are tasked and have agreed to do. But just as we learn to expect integrity from the people around us, we also expect integrity from the social institutions that make our society great. We expect our employers to treat us decently and pay us fairly. We expect strangers to obey the laws and we expect the courts to enforce the laws. We expect corporations to follow the law too, and to offer goods or services that deliver what they promise. We expect our schools to educate our children with the facts of science and mathematics and language. We want to trust that these entities, these non-human organisms, will adopt the trust engendering traits of the humans who operate them, and that these organizations, once in possession of our trust, will not betray it.

When it comes to government and other social leaders, gaining and maintaining trust with the community is an even more complex matter, one that today seems to have been deemed unnecessary at best, non-existent at worst. Political cynicism is at great heights, in large part because of decades of the polarizing and demonizing tactics of the political parties, but also because of the lack of integrity in elected officials, and the corruptible nature of money, power, and access traded between corporate heads and politicians. A half-decade or more of seemingly unending corporate meltdowns coupled with a political class that is increasingly out of touch with its constituents and completely ensconced in its own PC spin machines has left a bitter scar on the trust between the governed and the governors. (These same problems of trust can be applied to the geopolitical world of international politics as well, or to the fissures caused by religious differences around the world.)

And yet there are levels of trust within each of these layers of trust. We can reasonably trust that certain conditions will be met by our employers, but we can’t reasonably trust that those conditions will remain throughout our career. We can have security in our trust that the government will continue to provide a measure of public safety services, but we can’t always be sure that they will be effective or adequately funded. We may trust certain things about each other or from our leaders, but not others. To a degree, that may be a healthy trait, for blind trust requires no effort from the recipient and is easily and often abused. But trust is a two way street. In order to get trust, one must earn trust. And trust is earned with honesty and the ability to follow through on ones promises to the best of ones ability.

It’s pretty hard to trust our politicians these days. Regardless of your political ideology, members of both parties are tainted with the corruption of our electorate system, practically forcing them into the beds of special interest groups and corporate donors in order to feed the cash cow of political success. They hide their real motives behind flowery obfuscations and ineffective programs while positioning themselves or their benefactors to reap the bounty of the nation’s efforts. They espouse semantics as an effective rebuttal to wrongdoing while continuing on the present course of business as usual. Yet as citizens, we are not much better. We ignore elections in droves, apathetically assuming that nothing can change. We dissect every aspect of a candidate’s life whether it has relevance to the desired office or not. We live for the scandal. We drink up the distractions. We feed the flames.

So what is the solution? If the trust between everyday people and the leaders of our country- business, social, and political- has become stretched to the breaking point, what steps can we take to rebuild and eventually maintain the necessary levels of trust for society to flourish? Although we have become a pretty cynical society, there are still many basic levels of trust operating fairly well across the board. And although there are many Common Sense reforms that could strengthen those levels of trust, a simple reckoning between the government or business or social leaders and the general public would be a great start.

People want to trust each other, if for no other reason than that it makes life a whole lot easier. But trust requires honest information, and it is long past time that we begin to demand an unadulterated accounting from our government and our corporate heads with regards to their true intentions, plans, or goals for our society. We must be prepared to replace those sitting in the chairs of power if they refuse to act with honesty, either at the election box or with our wallets. Further, we must hold these people to their word and expect that they will follow through with what the say they will do. No longer should people in power be allowed to claim undeserved credit or ignore the will of their constituents. (A caveat here would be that elected officials would first have to ensure that their constituent’s wishes do not run contrary to the principals of individual freedom or social cohesion.) As citizens, we must shed our cloaks of apathy and return to the political arena. We must support meaningful election reform (to be discussed later) and encourage more candidates to run for office. We must quit buying in to the politics of divisiveness and instead embrace Common Sense.

Maintaining trust and even expanding it will require hard work, vigilance, and enduring cooperation among all the members of society, from the schoolhouse janitor to the President of the United States. It may well mean a complete overhaul of our political class in favor of untainted, public minded individuals without ties to the lobbyists. It may well mean radical campaign and election reform. It may well mean taking a serious look at who we are, where we want to be, and how we want to get there.

Honesty builds trust. Integrity builds trust. Success builds trust. It’s just simple Common Sense.