News stories about children dying from handguns or alleged abuses by the TSA are inevitably followed by debates in the media about the tradeoff between safety and civil liberties. If we restrict handguns in the name of protecting our children, for example, then doing so entails a reduction in Constitutionally-protected rights.

This is a false tradeoff. The debate really ought to be about vulnerabilities we face in society, and what to do about them.

The problem with the safety-liberties debate is that it perpetuates the belief that vulnerabilities decline as safety measures increase. They do not; they only shift. Instead of being vulnerable to terrorist attacks, increased security measures at airport screening stations make us vulnerable to incompetent and corrupt screening processes (think groping and misuse of scanner images). Instead of being vulnerable to dying by gunfire, we become vulnerable to intruders who invade our homes not expecting armed resistance.

Vulnerabilities are ubiquitous in life. Too often we overlook this fact. Even more, we tend to think vulnerabilities are a bad thing. On the contrary, vulnerabilities are necessary, because without vulnerabilities there is no basis for trust, which forms the foundation for all economic, political, social and personal relationships.

For instance, we trust banks by putting our money in their institutions, knowing there is a chance banks will misappropriate or mismanage the money, resulting in the loss of our wealth. The fact that government insures banking deposits only shifts our vulnerability somewhere else. We trust the government’s ability and willingness to make good on their commitment to insure our deposits (up to $100,000, as most banking institutions tell us).

We trust public corporations by purchasing stocks and bonds, making ourselves vulnerable to the loss of our investment. The 50 percent decline in the price of Facebook shares following its IPO several years ago illustrates why vulnerability is central to all economic activity. Economic growth only occurs if individuals and organizations take risks. I will invest in you in the hope that you will turn that investment into a good or service that makes money for me, but sometimes that trust is misplaced. When people are trustworthy – that is, when people don’t take advantage of the vulnerability of others – Adam Smith’s invisible hand ensures that such investments improve society.

Vulnerability and trust are the foundation of effective political relationships. When facing a potential military adversary, showing one’s empty hands is a universal signal of vulnerability and a crucial step toward the establishment of peace. Of course, sometimes such vulnerable actions are misplaced, and the opposing side takes advantage of the peace signal by attacking. But this only illustrates why peace offerings are fundamentally about making oneself vulnerable. Will Israel and Iran avert war? Only if one side first takes a vulnerable position and the other side follows by not taking advantage of the vulnerability.

Vulnerability is pervasive in social interactions. A friend is someone in whom one can confide, which means that the foundation of friendship is a willingness to be vulnerable. Social ties are superficial when one does not make him or herself vulnerable to others. This is why talking about the weather is an easy way to initiate a conversation with someone you don’t know, but it is not the basis for a long-lasting friendship. For trust to develop between potential friends, one needs to offer something more vulnerable than an opinion about the chance of rain.

Vulnerability and trust are fundamental to the development of a healthy and long-lasting marriage. Married couples can sense the quality of their marriage based on the perceived willingness of partners to make themselves vulnerable to each other. While extramarital affairs are harmful to marriage, they need not be sexual to exploit the trust of one’s marriage partner. For instance, what kind of signal does a married man send if he regularly confides personal concerns or details about himself to someone other than his wife?

Social conservatives decry the decline in public morality, but they have not been clear in explaining why this is a problem. Social and personal relationships are enhanced when one person first places him or herself in a vulnerable position with respect to someone else, and then when the second person reciprocates by honoring and respecting the trust placed in him or her. This leads to a greater willingness of the first to make a vulnerable commitment, thus perpetuating a deepening and virtuous cycle of trust and mutual respect. But declining public morality clouds our sense of vulnerability and makes it difficult for others to respond with honor and respect.

This is why pornography is so damaging to society. Pornography breaks the cycle. Although one could say that by exposing one’s body to others through pictures or video is a vulnerable action, it is only a counterfeit vulnerability, because that vulnerability does not result in a reciprocal response of honor and respect to the person making the vulnerable offering.

A similar argument can be made about modesty in dress and appearance. Over the years women’s fashions have become more revealing. Plunging necklines, exposed midriffs, and hip-hugging jeans send a socially damaging signal about one’s willingness and ability to be vulnerable to others. By exposing herself in public through the clothing she wears, a woman is saying that she has nothing to hide, which is another way of saying that she does not perceive herself as vulnerable. Some may claim that fashion is about signaling personal strength and confidence, but it is really just the opposite. A woman who dresses modestly recognizes her vulnerability, exposing herself only when she has good reason to believe that such trust will be honored. That takes real courage and strength.

Of course, some men’s fashions deserve the same criticism. Men who wear underwear-exposing baggy jeans send the same signal as women who expose cleavage or midriff. Modesty in dress by men and women preserves one’s vulnerability, which is essential to the development and maintenance of trust in personal and marriage relationships.

Which is why the marriage honeymoon used to be a significant event. But not anymore. Couples who have already seen each other naked and have been intimate before marriage have little to gain from the marriage relationship, aside from the legal and tax benefits that marriage provides. Marriage is an institution where two individuals can share the most sacred, intimate and personal vulnerabilities they have with someone else. When offerings of vulnerability are made within a marriage, by removing of one’s clothing and presenting oneself in an intimate way to a spouse, for example, the trust needed as the foundation of a healthy marriage can develop. The definition of marriage as a union between a man and woman has been weakened because the honeymoon has lost its significance as a stark contrast between being unmarried and married.

In our quest for greater security, we should not become complacent about the vulnerabilities we face. Failure to recognize and respect vulnerabilities can result in mistrust – trusting when one shouldn’t (such as telling a secret to a known gossip) or not trusting when one should (such as not confiding a personal struggle to a faithful spouse).


Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

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