What my lost oboe tells us about trust and honesty – two principles that are sadly disappearing

A melancholy little column from Tom Utley, almost completely undermined by his observation that:

“There was always a strong chance, even 40 years ago, that a fellow passenger on that bus to Neasden would have picked up my forgotten oboe and walked off with it into the night. Hence my four days of panic and misery before it turned up.”

Which is an admission of the motivating thought behind this blog: the world wasn’t really better in the halcyon days of other people’s youth, other people just think it was. When you think about it sensibly, not much has changed. But not so hasty:

“But back in 1968, you could be almost completely sure that once an item had been handed in to an official in charge of lost property, it would be 100 per cent safe.”

How do we get from a ‘strong chance’ that nothing’s changed to ‘almost complete’ certainty that it has? On what basis are we suggesting that people in positions of trust are now less trustworthy than they were when Tom Utley was a boy? An anecdote about someone returning his lost oboe, and a survey by Which? in which lost property offices waited for people who’d lost things to contact them rather than the other way around. These two quickly snowball into

“How desperately sad that in 2008, so many more people in all walks of life look upon trust as something to be abused. They seem to think that if they can get away with it, that’s all that matters.”

This sort of apocalyptic thinking is almost too vague to attack – the evidence offered is so insufficient that it can’t plausibly the basis for the conclusion. To attack it would be to attack a straw man. More interesting is the way Tom himself explains the possible causes of his despair:

“I can’t believe it’s just because we’ve become a more secular society, less terrified of hellfire.”

The ‘just’ does allow that it is a component though, sitting slightly uncomfortably with his earlier assertion that:

“For the huge majority of people in positions of trust, whether they were rich or poor, it was a point of pride to show themselves worthy of the confidence placed in them.”

Unless they were taking pride in doing the minimum required to avoid the wrath of God, one of those positions is untenable. Also interesting (and this should be the last quote for a while) is the movement from the religious to the social:

“Perhaps it has something to do with the breakdown of the family, of local communities and national identity, which has made us feel more distant from the people around us and less inclined to see ourselves in their shoes or to do for them as we would be done by.”

Or, to call a spade a spade: single parents, urbanisation and immigration¹. Taken together, Tom is just listing things he doesn’t trust as a reason for not trusting people. Essentially people are less like Tom Utley than they used to be, their backgrounds and points of reference are not those he can understand.

The obvious point that he misses is that trust is something that is given. Whether or not we give it is based entirely on perception. Take his example of MPs abusing trust by registering their weekend homes as their main residences. As far as I can make out, the story he’s referring to is the listing of Ed Balls’ and Yvette Cooper’s house near their constituencies in Yorkshire as their main residence. The report from the Parliamentary Standards Committee is here. Points 43-48 (pages 18-21) serve as a decent summary of quite a long and involved report, which concluded they were not guilty of anything, had done everything they could to stay on the right side of the regulations and had acted in a way that actually meant they paid more in needless stamp duty than they claimed in expenses². Now I don’t expect Tom to have read this report, although he probably should. All he’s doing is reflexively repeating what he believes to be true. But he only believes it because he doesn’t trust MPs to start with. Thus his evidence that the world is less worthy of trust is that he doesn’t trust people.

This circularity quickly becomes self-reinforcing. The story about MPs second homes has become evidence of their perfidy, even though in reality it proved the opposite. MPs are now less trustworthy than when they started, when actually they’ve proven themselves to be honest. In the same way, the employees of the lost property office (with one exception, which Network Rail disputes) were not shown to have done anything wrong, they were just under-zealous in performing what Tom believes their responsibility to be. The lack of trust which is already there is the root cause of the untrustworthiness he finds.

It’s in this context that his own explanation sits. The world is different from the one of his childhood because the people around him are different. The government are from a different political background, the people working in lost property offices are disproportionately from different socio-economic (and so, in many parts of the country, ethnic) backgrounds, as indeed are the bankers. The difference translates as a lack of understanding and a suspicion.

All of which means the real question should be: When did we stop giving people the benefit of the doubt? If Tom Utley could find a way to start again, he’d probably be much happier.

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¹ Of the four, it’s the movement into the cities that is allows the other three. Tom’s real question should be how we secure the benefits of urbanisation without the social costs.

² London was designated as their second home for tax purposes, so they ended up paying Capital Gains tax when moving within the capital. Had they registered this as their main residence for Parliamentary purposes, consistency would demand them doing the same for tax purposes, meaning that they wouldn’t have been eligible. By deliberately registering their constituency property as their ‘main address’, they knowingly incurred taxes that they could have avoided, which were greater than the expenses claimed on the constituency house.

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