Do We Actually Want To Be Conned? All Too Often: Yes

For instance: how many times would you drive downtown or to the park or Wal-Mart if a taxi-meter banged a gong and flashed a large LED sign of the cost of gasoline and maintenance every tenth of a mile? After the meter hit $5, you wouldn't feel the same about "running errands," believe me.

Not wanting the true costs of driving tallied is wanting to be conned. We want to be conned into the "affordability" of driving; that last tank of gasoline was "only" $50 and lasted quite a while--or so we want to believe.

And when the charity or the church fund drive approaches you for a donation, if you trust in your church then you willingly suspend your distrust of organizations and willingly believe your money will be well-spent, because if you didn't, then you would not donate.

In a similar fashion, we want to believe that buying real estate with a 30-year mortgage is a "cheap" "affordable" way to own a house--even though the reality is we end up paying three or four times more than the house is worth. Please scroll down and read Mark R'.s comments on the high cost of financing. If every mortgage statement came with 4-inch high bold letters stating how much was paid for financing and how little was paid on principle, it would certainly modify our belief in the "affordability" of 30-year mortgages. (Such long-term loans are a rarity in many countries, for good reason--they're a complete rip-off.)

We also want to be conned that the ideological purity of a candidate means he/she is really going to be honest and trustworthy. Heh. This is called "preaching to the choir" or "playing to the base." Yesirree Bob, I share your rock-solid belief in the sanctity of (insert pet ideological cause/belief) and so vote for me.

Hey, it works, because we want to be conned. The reality that all politicians have fluid values and will vote as compromise, party politics, pork, wheeling and dealing, lobbying, cash contributions and PR dictate. Ideological "purity" and beliefs are what's sold to suckers round election-time.

In some cases, trust and being conned are essentially identical. If you attended a do-nothing staff meeting or three at your favorite charity and saw how little was actually accomplished with your money, then it would certainly erode your trust and your willingness to donate. But without that trust, then whatever good the organization did accomplish with your money would go undone, too.

Let's turn to American master Herman Melville and his underappreciated masterpiece The Confidence-Man for further illumination on the nature of confidence and the con. I wrote this review awhile back but find the book perfectly suited to the topic of confidence, trust and the slipperiness of the con.

Why read a book from 1857 which flopped so badly as commercial literature that Melville stopped writing and ended his career as a customs official? Because this book masterfully explores the entire nature of trust, confidence and cons. Though the setting is a riverboat on the Mississippi River just before the U.S. exploded into Civil War, its insights cross cultural boundaries.

This is not an easy book to read for several reasons. First, it is undoubtedly one of the first "post-modern" novels which breaks from traditional narrative storytelling. ( Another example: Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground.) The Confidence-Man is a collection of 45 conversations between various people on the riverboat--beggars, absurdly dressed frontiersmen, sickly misers, shysters, patent medicine hucksters, veterans (of the Mexican-American War) and the "hero" in the latter part of the book, the Cosmopolitan.

In typical Melville fashion, you also get asides--directly to the reader, in several cases, as if Melville felt the need to address issues of fiction outside the actual form of his novel. The lack of structure, action and conclusion make this a post-modern type book, but if you read each conversation as a separate story, then it starts to make more sense.

For what ties the book together is not a story but a theme: the nature of trust and confidence. In a very sly way, Melville shows how a variety of cons are worked, as the absolutely distrustful are slowly but surely convinced to do exactly what they vowed not to do: buy the "herbal" patent medicine, buy shares in a bogus stock venture, or donate cash to a suspect "charity."

In other chapters, it seems like the con artist is either stopped in his tracks or is conned himself. Since the book is mostly conversations, we are left to our own conclusions; there is no authorial voice wrapping up each chapter with a neatly stated ending. This elliptical structure conveys the ambiguous nature of trust; we don't want to be taken, but confidence is also necessary for any business to be transacted. To trust no one is to be entirely isolated.

Melville also raises the question: is it always a bad thing to be conned? The sickly man seems to be improved by his purchase of the worthless herbal remedy, and the donor conned out of his cash for the bogus charity also seems to feel better about himself and life. The ornery frontiersman who's been conned by lazy helpers softens up enough to trust the smooth-talking employment agency owner. Is that a terrible thing, to trust despite a history of being burned?

The ambuiguous nature of the bonds of trust is also explored. We think the Cosmopolitan is a con-man, but when he convinces a fellow passenger to part with a heavy sum, he returns it, just to prove a point. Is that a continuance of the con, or is he actually trustworthy?

The book is also an exploration of a peculiarly American task: sorting out who to trust in a multicultural non-traditional society of highly diverse and highly mobile citizens. In a traditional society, things operate in rote ways; young people follow in their parents' traditional roles, money is made and lent according to unchanging standards, and faith/tradition guides transactions such as marriage and business along well-worn pathways.

But in America, none of this structure is available. Even in Melville's day, America was a polyglot culture on the move; you had to decide who to trust based on their dress, manner and speech/pitch. The con, of course, works on precisely this necessity to rely on one's senses and rationality rather than a traditional network of trusted people and methods. So the con man dresses well and has a good story, and an answer for every doubt.

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