Moats: Running on trust

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(HOST) Commentator David Moats likes to buy from local farms and produce stands. He especially likes the ones that run on trust.

(MOATS)  There’s a place I go to buy meat where you walk into a small barn, open the freezers, take what you want and leave your money in a little container.  They have lots of good stuff – lamb chops, pork ribs, bacon and sausage.  And it’s all done on the honor system.

This is not an unfamiliar idea. Our roadsides have lots of vegetable stands where the empty coffee can is the closest thing to a cash register.

I get a good feeling whenever I drop by for a supply of bacon or beef – as if by honoring the honor system I myself become honorable.

The honor system depends on an intangible sense of social virtue.  It depends on trust.  It depends on faith that people will do the right thing. Buying bacon becomes like voting – a kind of small gesture that holds us together.

In many ways we depend on each other to behave honorably. Many Vermonters leave their homes unlocked, which means that during the
day when people are at work, there are whole neighborhoods of easy pickings. But for the most part, we are not beset by thieves. For the most part, we honor one another. Those invisible bonds of honor are a comfort to us in the winter because we know if we slide off the road, someone will stop to help. In Alaska, it’s against the law to pass by someone out on the highway who has put up his car’s hood.

Of course, it’s also against the law to burglarize homes or to steal from a roadside stand. The laws are a reminder of what’s honorable, and it’s our sense of honor that makes violation of the laws the exception.  When our faith in one another breaks down, it’s hard to restore it. Piecing together shattered societies, as in Iraq or Afghanistan, depends on a gradual restoration of trust.

In American cities, a generation ago, the feeling of safety and trust had seriously weakened. More recently, it has been restored, to a degree, even if people’s doors don’t go unlocked.

The anger and viciousness that exist on the fringes of American politics reflect a loss of faith, a lack of trust. Certainly, events have battered our faith, and not just on the fringes. But bit by bit, I think we’re learning to trust one another, learning that lacking an honor system, we’ll live in fear – that someone will take the
 money from that open coffee can. Without an honor system we lock our doors, actually and metaphorically.

If we’re willing to drop off the right change when we buy our corn or our lamb chops, we’ll keep alive the trust that makes everything work.

And we end up with corn that’s sweet and lamb that’s tender and tasty.

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