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Trusting Dr. Strangelove

Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg
Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg
President Barack Obama talks with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a town hall style meeting at Facebook headquarters on April 20, 2011 in Palo Alto, California. Obama held the Facebook town hall to answer questions about the deficit and the economy. | Photo: Associated Press | Barack Obama, President, Democrat, Liberal, Facebook,

Or how I learned to stop worrying and trust the bomb

I recently attended a panel discussion hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. The discussion focused on social media, but at one point a panelist commented that one reason people are willing to trust their information to companies is that they receive instant gratification. He reasoned that some people don't trust the government because unlike Netflix, the government rarely provides instant gratification, especially when it comes to national security and the Intelligence Community. This was one of the few points I disagreed with him on. While instant gratification and other classical conditioning techniques can make people like or enjoy things, they are not nearly as effective at creating trust. Ultimately, trust is created by vulnerability.

We trust people and things that are vulnerable to us. When we see a child we trust him not to attack us, not because children are universally sweet and innocent, but because the child is vulnerable to us. The child won't attack because he knows that they would be hurt just as badly as the adult. We trust children to behave in school, not because they want to, but because misbehaving will get them into trouble with their teachers and parents.

The policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, or the MAD Policy as its detractors call it, works off of the same principle. Russia, China and the United States, despite consistent competition and mutual suspicion, all share a level of trust and an implicit understanding that transcends national treaties and international laws. It's not based on diplomacy, shared goals, shared enemies, profit or any other motivator typically associated with foreign policy. It's based on simple self-interest and vulnerability. Russia trusts the United States not to attack because it knows its nuclear arsenal could destroy the United States, and Russia trusts the United States' self-interest to be sufficient motivation to prevent this. This is how Mutually Assured Destruction turns distrust into trust.

The founders of the United States attempted to use this principle to create a government which could be trusted because it was vulnerable to the people. Every few years, those in public office must convince the public to vote for them. Those who fail to do well enough, or who prove themselves unworthy of being trusted, are voted out of office. Unfortunately, as people become increasingly convinced that their vote won't make a difference, they not only become less likely to vote - they trust the government less.

In effect, this is why some people don't trust the Intelligence Community - they feel powerless against the NSA and so they don't trust the NSA and its surveillance programs. Many in the government think that the solution is more, or better, oversight. Unfortunately, this confuses a tool with the objective. Oversight, by itself, does very little. Oversight and internal reporting systems have identified problems within the NSA only for the public to respond that it's proof of problems with the system - despite the system having identified and corrected those problems. People perceive the Intelligence Community as monolithic and faceless, as a cabal that seeks to both know and control all the secrets. They don't understand the Intelligence Community and they don't understand how they can work to change it, and so they don't trust it.

For people to trust the government they need to feel like they're able to participate in it and affect it - and once every four years isn't nearly enough.

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Updated May 10, 2017 9:56 AM EDT | More details

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