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Building an Economy Based on Trust

Read this article in Spanish. Lea este artículo en español

Much has been said of the culture of fear that has dominated American politics since 9/11. Besides terrorists, we're also taught to fear a host of others, from identity thieves to child-predators. In the commercial sector, the industries of mistrust (think locks, alarms, paper shredders, surveillance cameras, etc.) are flourishing. Many people make their living by selling products or services that rely on widespread mistrust.

Is everyone investing in a society and an economy based on suspicion and fear? I'm glad to say, no. One example is thriving where I live in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts. At our many roadside farmstands, fresh locally grown food is sold through an informal honor-system—pick up your produce, then leave the money in an old coffee can or cigar box. No one supervises the transaction—you are trusted to do right. These farmstands—and there are hundreds of them—are sites of a regional trust-based economy.

Despite their great variety, these farmstands have some common—and striking—characteristics. Most are located on high-visibility arterial roads and attract attention without large signs, vinyl banners or neon. Instead they advertise in the most direct and understated tones, with hand-painted signs saying simply: “fresh eggs,” “sweet corn,” or “bouquets.” They're often made of an old picnic table shaded by an umbrella or a few rough planks built into a rudimentary display case, like a lemonade stand run by grown–ups. Agricultural zoning laws protect and encourage their proliferation, and their sheer abundance validates to customers that this is a culturally accepted way to purchase food. Like rural convenience stores, farmstands offer quick transactions, but with no buildings to enter and no spying surveillance cameras. And while there is the possibility of theft, most people don't steal. In fact, several farmers I've interviewed say that customers make a point of over-paying or leaving an I.O.U. note, even if it's just for fifty cents.

Farmers profit by selling direct. Customers benefit by having access to fresh locally grown produce at a good price. But perhaps best of all, these farmstands provide both a place and an opportunity to practice being trusted and to reciprocate by being trustworthy.

In recent years, the trust fashion has been spreading. In Europe, the belief in trust is being used in a new approach to traffic management. The tactic is to remove traffic signs in order to make intersections safer. The thinking goes like this: the authoritative nature of traffic signs numbs our feeling of accountability. We drive according to the law. But what about driving from a perspective of respect and caring for other road users? If you've ever been at an intersection where a power outage has disabled the traffic lights, you know how people slow down and become more mindful. “The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We're losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior,” explained Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman in an interview with the German publication Der Spiegel. “The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people's sense of personal responsibility dwindles.” Monderman's concept, on the other hand, is helping people to reconnect with trust. And it's working.

Are the various industries of mistrust really where we want to invest our time, money and cultural values? If we value trust, let's practice trusting. Let's dream of—and initiate—more ways to believe in, rather than fear, each other. The possibilities are limitless—if we trust in them.


Ted White
Ted White is a documentary filmmaker and cultural geographer who lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. He teaches college courses in both film and geography and is researching examples of trust for a new book and film. He welcomes examples from readers by email.

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