On the face of the American one dollar bill there is a public declaration: “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private”. It is signed by the treasurer of the United States and countersigned by the Secretary of the Treasury. And though few of us have ever met any of those gentlemen all of us are willing to trust that the dollar bills we have in our pockets or for that matter the British pounds or the Japanese yen (which are backed by an equal kind of promise) will work as currency anywhere.
The reason we are willing to accept the face value of what is, in essence, pieces of colored paper lies in the fact that we actually believe that the promissory value that’s printed on the paper is backed by the full institutional might of (in this case) the United States. In order to understand the strength of that belief and the paradox that lies at the very heart of it, consider that dollar bills which are a manifestation of the power held by the United States government are also used to buy the kit used by survivalists, who reject any kind of governmental authority. Dollar bills change hands in the transactions of radicalized extremists purchasing weapons and ammunition that are to be used in their avowed fight against the same country whose currency they have used and whose government and authority they want to destroy. And dollar bills are used by competing nations, like Russia, who are locked in an ideological struggle across geopolitical interests. Dollar bills are also used in everyday transactions by countless US citizens despite the fact that a Pew Research report suggests that social trust rides high with less than half of the population.
Dollar bills can be used by all these actors in all these contradictory contexts where some can reject the authority of the issuing agency and actively work to overthrow it because, at the same time, everyone feels the same amount of trust in the issuing agency’s willingness to keep its word and honor the promissory value that is printed on its currency. The motto of “In God we Trust” printed on the reverse of the one dollar bill is a reference to religion that is no accident. It serves as an additional reminder of the requirement for collective faith in the integrity of the system in order for it to work.