Market Interaction, Anonymity, and Social Trust

I live in a neighborhood that is quite purple. I haven’t seen the 2020 data, but in 2016, it was pretty much split 50/50 between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. For someone like me, who is no fan of Hillary Clinton, and who has been highly critical of Trump since he first announced his candidacy, if not before, this seems relevant to Kevin Vallier’s idea of classical liberals as peacemakers. Or the common enemy. But there’s another part to it. My loathing of Trump and the four years of his presidency runs very deep. Even as I can imagine reasonable grounds for doing so, my gut reaction is to not think well of people who voted for the man, especially the second time around.

However, half of my neighbors made that choice. These are my same neighbors who have mowed our lawn before we took occupancy of the house and who shoveled our snow when my wife and I were both dealing with medical issues. They are the same folks who brought us welcoming gifts when we moved in and offered us food, childcare, and doggy care during my time in the hospital over the last few years. They are the same people whose dogs I adore and who always let me know when they’ve seen me on the local news. I would happily do all of the same for them.

The political polarization that Kevin discusses has been made worse by a concurrent geographic and social polarization that reduces the meaningful contact people have with those who do not share their politics. Team Red and Team Blue are not just abstract markers. Like sports teams, they are increasingly connected to geographically more isolated networks. One need only think about the data that correlate the presence of a Whole Foods with voting Democratic and a Cracker Barrel with voting Republican. Or the survey result that more Americans would object to their kids marrying someone from the other political party than to someone of a different race or ethnicity.

There is also an economic version of this problem. Too many folks on either side of the aisle are starting to see their purchases as a consumer as an opportunity to signal their tribal loyalties to one team or another. Progressives have boycotted Chick-Fil-A and Barilla pasta, while conservatives reject traditional and social media platforms that they feel are biased against them, or refuse to patronize firms or individuals who are pro-choice. Of course some firms, like Penzey’s Spices, proudly make their politics an explicit part of their brand. This politicization of consumption is both a symptom and further cause of the polarization that concerns Kevin. And for reasons I’ll discuss below, any movement in the direction of dividing into a Blue Economy and a Red Economy poses a serious threat to social trust.

Markets have an important role to play in overcoming differences and helping to create social trust. We know from survey data that people who interact more with immigrants have more positive attitudes toward them. A great deal of anti-immigrant rhetoric comes from places where people have limited, if any, experience dealing with immigrants in the market and civil society. One of the things that classical liberals can do as part of what Kevin calls a classical liberal “antiwar movement” is to encourage just this sort of interaction, but across lines of political polarization. As classical liberals, we might be uniquely positioned to create sites of such interaction given our ability to converse with both teams. Yes, as Kevin notes, we might be the mutual enemy, but the more optimistic view of that position is that at least we are in contact with both sides.

We can remind people of all the ways in which they do, in fact, deal in a trustworthy manner with people who might see the world very differently than they do. The anonymity of the marketplace can be helpful here, as it’s relevant that we do not know anything about those we deal with at the grocery store or car repair shop or Starbucks. Yet we still benefit from the interaction. Even if it were possible to know every detail about each person we directly interact with in the market every day, would we want to? Should we want to? Do people really want to deny themselves the opportunities that markets afford by virtue of their anonymity by importing the problem of polarization into that world?

The vast majority of the interactions we have in the marketplace or with civil society organizations or even with our neighbors are peaceful and cooperative, reflecting a good level of social trust. I would argue that one reason for this outcome is that we haven’t allowed the identity markers that promote polarization to overly invade those spaces, at least not at the individual level. Some businesses do, for example, display Black Lives Matter signs or MAGA paraphernalia, which might affect our consumption decisions. But most business don’t do this, and almost every business prevents employees from, for example, wearing clothing that might push away potential customers. We simply have no idea what the individuals working the deli counter at the grocery store believe about politics or other issues of the day, much less the even more anonymous others who raised the cattle, drove the trucks, and created the packaging that made it possible for me to buy some roast beef there. And that should be seen as a feature, not a bug. The anonymity of the marketplace is an important part of its ability to promote peaceful social cooperation.

We know statistically, as I do about my neighbors, that some percentage of the people we deal with every day have beliefs that we might think are abhorrent. Maintaining social trust requires two things of us. First, we need to minimize the places where we feel it necessary to declare our polarization-enhancing loyalties. And second, we have to realize that those loyalties don’t, by themselves, preclude those we disagree with from doing good things, whether anonymously in the market or more personally in our neighborhoods.

Interactions that can take place with those two considerations in mind will help forward social trust. When Trump critics, for example, are faced with acts of kindness by Trump supporters, the resulting cognitive dissonance is not going to immediately change hearts and minds, but it can force a reconsideration of the assumption of bad faith. I know that whenever I’m tempted to assume the worst about Trump voters, I force myself to remember that the odds are 50-50 that my neighbors who have done me so many kindnesses are in that group. Part of the classical liberal antiwar effort should be to point out all of these ways in which we interact beneficially, though anonymously, with those who differ from us. Again, it is a feature, not a bug, that I do not know which way specific neighbors of mine voted or what the cashier at Kroger thinks about immigration policy.

Despite the sense that “everything” is political these days, the reality is that most of the interactions we have during our typical day are still based on social trust and not undermined by increasing politicization and polarization. This is especially true when we consider the lesson of “I, Pencil” and realize the countless anonymous others responsible for the dense networks of social cooperation that bring us our daily bread. The institutions of the market make it possible for us to trust anonymous others and peacefully cooperate with strangers. Maintaining social trust might require that we shine a light on those institutions and their role in making visible the hidden ties of trust across anonymity that we take for granted every day. The danger of “woke capitalism” is that in trying to do something good by making us mindful that our consumer dollars matter, it might remove the firewall of anonymity that helps maintain the widespread social trust that markets both rely on and encourage.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kevin Vallier argues that politics should not be war, and that classical liberals should strive to be peacekeepers. He marshals evidence that high levels of social trust lead to many desirable social outcomes, and that social trust in the United States has been on the wane. At the same time, Vallier also laments the decline of classical liberalism as a force in American politics. He proposes that classical liberals can reinvigorate their movement by addressing the problem of trust—a development that will improve the political climate for everyone.

Response Essays

  • Steven Horwitz points out that civil society is of great value regardless of the political beliefs of those within it. Our neighbors—whom we may hate for voting for Trump, or for Biden—are the same people whom we greet and exchange kindnesses with. They are also the same people who provide us goods and services in the market—meaning that the market and civil society both stand in conflict with our harsher political impulses.

  • Martin Gurri places the blame for declining instutional trust squarely on how internet-mediated social interactions have fatally undermined many of our old, elite-run institutions. The problem is structural, he insists, and not the result of partisanship alone. He is doubtful that classical liberalism, however defined, can offer a workable solution.

  • Americans are paradoxically both highly polarized—and not all that ideologically divided, writes Irina Soboleva. Voters are intensely attached to their parties and their leaders, and, she argues, it is these institutions and leaders that have encouraged polarization. Political ignorance has exacerbated this tendency; in response, Soboleva calls for “buffer zones” of relatively nonpolitical life including but also extending beyond the market.