by Michael Maciel
When it comes to cultural icons, the story of George Washington never telling a lie is a perfect example of how symbolic narratives can be used to shape the moral strivings of a nation such as ours.
As with all symbolic stories, this one is not meant to be taken literally, because, as we all know, everyone lies, at least some of the time. Rather than being about George himself, this symbolic story is about how we as a people value honesty, the way we recognize it as the glue that binds our culture, and thus our prosperity, together.
This principle of honesty is also implied in the motto, “In God We Trust.” You have probably heard that the subconscious mind sees and hears differently from the conscious mind. If we say, “I am not sick,” the sub hears only the words “I” and “sick.” It doesn’t compute the words “am not.” Likewise, in the phrase, “In God we trust,” the sub hears only “God” and “trust.” And just as it tends to equate the words “I” and “sick,” it will equate the words “God” and “trust,” which places trust at the very top of our conceptual hierarchy of values.
The story of eBay illustrates how important a concept this is. When eBay first started out, no one thought it would work. They thought that you would send me a bad check and I would send you junk. In fact, there was a slew of companies that acted on that skepticism and offered to guarantee our purchases for ten percent of the cost. But they all quickly went out of business. Why? Because…
NO ONE CHEATED.
The motto “In God We Trust” isn’t an attempt to Christianize or religify the government. No. It’s a rather secular understanding that in order for a society to thrive and prosper, business contracts have to mean something. They have to be enforceable. There has to be a court system that will back individuals when their contracts are broken.
This conceptual value was so ardently upheld in the early days of our country that a person’s word alone was enough to seal a deal. A man’s word was his bond, as the saying goes. And everyone took that very, very seriously.
Today, not so much. But the trust still lingers, as was demonstrated by eBay’s business model being wildly successful. People, by and large, will do what they agree to do, at least in matters of business, because trust is a value we can all agree on, even if we don’t always perfectly live up to it in practice.
How do we know this? Because when we don’t honor our agreements, we know that we’re violating a principle. It feels wrong. It’s when we see people cheating without compunction that we know that a society is sick. Just look at those countries where corruption has taken over. When trust is intact, economies flourish. But when trust is broken, corruption takes over, and everyone, except for a few at the top, sinks into desperate poverty.
So, it’s not as though George was a perfectly honest man, it’s that symbolically (being the “father” of our nation) he represents one of the CORE PRINCIPLES that has made our economy, and therefore our society, one of the most affluent in the history of the world. Where trust abounds, everyone does well.