Fiat trust

Part of a collection of essays on TRUST by @futurepaul

The modern world is built on an abundance of trust. The customer trusts the grocer trusts the supplier trusts the processor trusts the farmer trusts the farmhands. Supply chains are trust chains!

In Adam Smith’s conception, the division of labor — and the specialization and efficiencies that division allows — is the biggest factor in the increase productivity of that labor. And think of all the trust, implicit and explicit, in the division of labor. I won’t make the whole widget, my co-worker will make the antecedent and another co-worker will make the consequent to my piece. My boss will coordinate our actions. The inputs will come from all over the world. The money I earn will purchase the goods I have not been making while busy at the widget factory: food, shelter, shoes, etc.

But the prevelance of trust in this formulation of society makes it easy to slip in unfounded, “fiat” trust.

My favorite working definition of “fiat” right now is “because I said so.” Here, I’ll let Jimmy Song elaborate:

The word fiat in Latin is not an adjective like it is in English. Here’s Genesis 1:3 in Latin: “Dixitque Deus fiat lux et facta est lux.” Which means, “And God said let there be light and there was light.” Fiat lux here means “let there be light.” Fiat is a verb in Latin meaning “let there be.” And indeed that’s where the phrase fiat money comes from. It means let there be money. The money requires no work and is decreed into existence, so as a result, fiat is an adjective in English meaning “by decree.” Fiat is the idea that you can create something by telling it to exist and not by doing the work to make it exist. The fiat mentality is the illusion that you can decree something into reality just by saying so.

When we live in a high trust society perhaps it’s hard for us to spot where unearned trust is slipping in unnoticed. There might be a broken link in the “trust chain” and I don’t have the skills to detect that failure.

I wander the grocery store, trusting my grocer hasn’t stocked the shelves with poison. But my grocer trusts the FDA to vet the products he stocks. And at some point some emperor at the FDA decreed seed oils were “heart healthy.” A sneaky little “because I said so” breaks the whole system, and it has taken decades for spoiled high-trust moderns like myself to become aware of the problem.

Posted Oct 1, 2022