The Commodification of Mistrust

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A recent report from Imagine BC (a public engagement project being run out of Simon Fraser University’s Wosk Centre for Dialogue), contained the following quote:

“(The) ‘elephant in the room’ is the public’s increasing mistrust in society’s public and private sector institutions. Without trust there is disengagement and cynicism. People opting out with an ‘all is lost’ attitude. Contrary to current myths, the public ‘gets’ sustainability, but is fearful. [They] don’t trust those in power to do the right thing; don’t believe they can make a difference.”

I don’t think this lack of trust is accidental. While not a conspiracy theorist by nature, it’s clear that mistrust is a valuable commodity to certain players in the business world. Mistrust begets policy paralysis, which destroy’s government’s ability to implement regulations, which leaves the corporate community free to do whatever its invisible hand fancies.

The focus for the DeSmogBlog is climate change, in which the corporate attempts to sow confusion are obvious.Cato Institute, the George C. Marshall Institute, the Fraser Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Then look at the messages that those tankers propogate. They never say “trust us.” Who would? They say: “Don’t trust ‘them’.” Don’t trust environmentalists, don’t trust any scientist whose work is supported by a public-sector granting organization and for goodness sake, never ever trust government. Look first at the support that the corporate world flows into libertarian think tanks such as the

There’s also this pandering additional sentiment: trust only the market. Trust Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Trust yourself to make a good decision—in fact to make a better decision—when you are informed only by advertising, by self-interested private-sector research organizations and never by “intellectuals” (ptheww!) or dreaded bureaucratic government policy makers.

Well, Adam Smith’s invisible hand is pretty impressive. The Russkies, when they were still “bad guys” proved unequivocally that a free market works better than central planning. But why should we trust the central planners at Microsoft or Wal-Mart or ExxonMobile more than we trust government? Just because Bill Gates is a smart businessman, a swell guy and, dollar for dollar, the most generous human being in the history of the planet, doesn’t mean his industry should go unregulated.

And why, in any case, should we enslave ourselves categorically to an invisible hand that values the efforts of football players and television actors a thousand times over that of brain surgeons or, for that matter, public health nurses. Adam Smith never contemplated a world in which General Motors alone would spend more than $3 billion a year in advertising, nudging our impressionable brains to follow the sleight of his invisible hand.

By all means, keep an open mind. But when someone, say, a novelist like the climate-change denying Michael Crichton, starts savaging the trustworthiness of, say, a consensus of the best climate scientists in the world, do a quick reality check.

Ask who really deserves your trust: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2,500 incredibly smart people, who have dedicated their lives to understanding the workings of the world’s climate systems – and who allow their every pronouncement to be reviewed for fact and relevance by similarly well-informed scientists – or a storyteller who is now making a fortune on the corporate speaking circuit?

In short, if someone is peddling mistrust in a package deal that includes buying their oil, keep shopping.

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