In high-trust societies things basically work, crime is generally low, business is easy to transact, and the tentpole institutions generally do what they’re supposed to do: families are strong and prolific, primary schools educate, universities select for and produce excellence, religious institutions support social order and transmit transcendent truth from generation to the next, and prudent government protects its people and promotes the national interest.
But what happens when trust declines? What happens when the schools don’t educate very well, when the universities produce more credentials than excellence, when religious institutions apostatize and undermine the social order, when government fails to protect or even actively harms its citizens? That’s when faith in society’s essential sense-and-meaning-making institutions first diminishes and then disappears. At first, it’s just a trickle. If Harvard admits a few mediocrities at the margin, people notice but they have centuries of social capital behind the name. But trajectory matters. What began as a trickle soon becomes a steady flow and eventually the value of everything is less clear.
Elite colleges are only one part of a more general problem. All of America’s sense-making institutions are less dependable than ever before. Colleges don’t educate very well, churches abandon orthodoxy, and journalists give up objective news reporting for partisan political warfare.
Families are effected too. In America, as well as in other developed countries, the family has been in decline for decades. People get married later, they divorce frequently, they have fewer children, and children are less likely to be raised by both parents. The CDC recently reported that America’s already very low fertility rate of around 1.78 births per woman collapsed in 2020 to 1.64. The replacement rate is 2.1. In other words, our society is failing to reproduce itself.
And yet, for all of the problems the family has in post-modern, post-industrial, post-prosperity America, it’s signal importance and unique strengths are becoming more important. It won’t be liberated individuals, it will be families that lead us out of this present evil age. And, in fact, it’s only families that can do it.
There are two main reasons for this. The first is that the family is the essential, enduring human institution. It exists always and everywhere. It pre-exists and transcends both politics and the state. The other is the necessity of trust. In pre-modern societies (sometimes referred to now as “developing”) trust exists primarily in the family, the clan, and the tribe. Modern societies were supposed to have solved this problem - if you think it’s a problem - by creating unifying social and political narrative and building institutions to transmit and enforce those norms. That’s a role that has been historically filled by family and church. But the modern institutions that replaced them are in freefall.
Everyone knows that people don’t trust Congress, but trust in public schools declined from about 60% in 1975 to about 40% in 2020. Trust in the medical system dropped from 80% to about 50% over the same period. But the family persists. And it continues to play it’s essential role in producing and nurturing the next generation, in sense and meaning making, trust building, and as an enforcer of social norms.
This is becoming more important and it’s a trend that will continue.
As a credentialing organization, the family is better than any created, third-party institutions. There are consequences for failure and bad behavior, but also deeper and more lasting rewards for success and for behaving honorably. This creates thicker, interdependent networks, more unity and more durability, whereas third party credentialers often encourage atomization and optimize for comformism and encourage risk aversion. The problem with a rules-based order that is not subject to a higher authority like God and/or the family, is that it creates a society that is one massive, networked prisoner’s dilemma in which every rational, self-interested player is incentivized to betray each other and to find ways to game the the system.
Consider the hyper-competitive world of elite college admissions. The creation of pop-up non-profits created by high school sophmores and juniors looking for a way to distinguish their applications is so prevalent that it’s become a punchline. These bespsoke charities may do some good for others, but their main purpose is to do good for their ambitious creators who want to be seen doing good by credulous admissions officers.
Likewise office politics can be so toxic, Cancel Culture exists, and as many as 86% of university students cheat for the same reason: It’s all about optimizing for short-term, transactional advantage without much (or any) fear of adverse consequences for such dishonorable behavior. Rather, the expectation is that the bad behaviour will be rewarded. But families have a different set of standards and the relationships both within and between families are much more intense and last longer. This naturally encourages long-term thinking. By definition they think in generational terms.
Family companies, for example, often outperform their competitors. This at least in part because they don’t suffer from the tyranny of short-termism. In fact, Credit Suisse did a study in 2017 that found this was a consistent theme across all industries.
““It’s the multi-year investment story, rather than quarterly earnings story, and if you look at things like R&D (research and development) intensity, family-owned companies invest more of their revenues on average in R&D, again more supportive of the longer term focus,” said Klerk.
Family-owned companies are also more likely to fund the company’s growth organically rather than through borrowing and were more likely to reduce net debt.
The report surveyed 100 family-owned companies to find out about their strategies. More than 50 percent said their key parameter for senior management’s remuneration was long-term financial or non-financial metrics, with multi-year revenue or earnings growth being the most popular metric.
“One interesting aspect of our analysis is the fact that family ownership correlates with longer-term remuneration policies. Sixty-one percent of companies where the family holds a 50 percent or higher stake have a long-term financial or non-financial remuneration policy,” the report said.”
We shouldn’t be surprised. Despite three generations of financialization, of specialization, and of MBAs leading American corporate culture, it’s still the family businesses that are the most successful. And that’s because families judge success by different metrics like loyalty, grace, love, honor, and have a longer horizon over which to make those judgements. Transactional behavior and short-term optimization - the very core of modern social calculus - are deprecated within families because of their corrosive nature.
What’s interesting is that more families are returning to the old ways. Relationships between families - not just individuals - are passed down from one generation to the next. Coming from a particular family can be a credential more valuable than an elite diploma. This is not a reference to rich kids doing well because they were already rich at birth and inherit money and connections. Rather, it's something that is true regardless of wealth and is better defined by other measures with the biggest being trust and accountability. In a low-trust world marked by unreliable, often self-interested sense-making institutions, trust is in high demand.
This is a positive development and to the extent that it expands our society we will be better off. We need more trust and that comes in part from having deep, thick, relationships without which not much can be accomplished or only slowly and at high cost.
What does Harvard optimize for? What does a family optimize for? Which is more durable? Sustainable? Desirable?
High Trust Families Replace Low Trust Institutions
Which one do you want to define the trajectory of the country? If you said the family, you may be in luck, because while Harvard’s trustworthiness wanes, we’re witnessing the rebirth of the family. It’s hard to tell how widespread this is, but in my experience there is a group people who are reorienting their lives around the thickest, deepest relationships in their lives. The American church, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, have been in decline for decades both in terms of their orthodoxy and their attendance, but there has been a recent, hopeful resurgence among the faithful, orthodox, confessional, liturgical, Eastern Orthodox, traditionalist Catholics, and Protestant denominations. They may be few in number, but they are building vibrant communities that compare well to the early Christians described at the end of Acts 2. Likewise, my own observation combined with some anecdata (my favorite kind of data!) is that more people are actively cultivating intra-family relationships that manifest in many everything from professional and spiritual mentorships to business and social projects to marriages.
Of course this makes sense, the combination of natural kin-preference and the reality of the Dunbar Number (the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships) not just natural, but almost inevitable. It’s been mostly the intervention of other mediating institutions (that are now failing) and the logic of liberalism that have undermined family’s role for the past few generations.
But one note of caution: as with so many other things, this is a good that is unevenly distributed. It is strongest and most common among the wealthy (who still tend to live rather traditional lives despite their mostly liberal social beliefs) and among those actively practice their religion. These are the groups that are the most tightly knit and that continue to maintain high levels of social trust among themselves. They’re also the groups upon which the revitalization of America depends. My estimation is that as modern liberalism continues its work of breaking down the natural institutions and relationships of human life and creating a vast helot class of atomized, alienated, exploitable Americans that are thought of more as consumers and workers than fellow citizens and friends, there will be some people for whom the family will grow stronger. It will be not just a haven in a heartless world and an independent means of making sense and finding meaning in that world, it will also be the foundation for a rebirth of a more vital civilization.