Thursday, September 09, 2004

Asymmetric Trust

Our experience of trust starts at the human level: between parent and child, or between neighbour and neighbour. This can be symmetrical, because both sides are people.

As soon as we treat corporations as if they were people, we start to get into difficulties. I may have warm feelings about some of the companies in my neighbourhood, especially those that have been around for a long time; but any trusting relationship between myself and a company is essentially asymmetric, because a company is not a person (legal fiction notwithstanding). I may trust the shop where I buy my groceries, and I may have little choice but to trust my bank, but these are not symmetric relationships.

Similar difficulties arise in relationships between companies and trade unions, and between nations and other organizations. Aidan writes of negotiations between terrorists and the USA government. But such negotiations (if they take place at all) are inescapably asymmetrical, because the two sides are of different types. Terrorist leaders typically have the power to inspire violence; but when they instruct their followers to lay down their arms, the most likely outcome is that a proportion of them will switch allegiance to other leaders (previously unknown) who want to carry on the fight.

If we pretend that AlQaeda is like a conventional army, or a conventional nation state, we are likely to get into worse trouble. We cannot create symmetrical trust by pretending that different entities are of the same type. (Aidan talks about "the amount of skin in the game", as if it was simply a game of cards with high stakes and we can find a system frame in which these stakes are equal in some sense. But it's not GWB or OBL whose skin is at risk, and the balance of power is an illusion.)

We can only create symmetrical trust by forging genuine relationships between entities of the same type – people to people, community to community.

Previous Posts on Asymmetric Trust: Fearful Asymmetry, Identity Cards, State of Trust 2, Who Needs Symmetry?

More on Asymmetry.