Why being able to trust strangers leads to prosperity
Acton Institute Powerblog

Why being able to trust strangers leads to prosperity

stranger-dangerMy mother would be mortified by my behavior.

Since before I could walk she warned me about “stranger danger”: Don’t get into a car with strangers; don’t accept candy from strangers; don’t’ go into a strangers house, etc.

What would she think if she knew I had taken an Uber to an Airbnb?

Growing up in the 1970s parents and teachers drilled into my young brain the idea that the most dangerous people in the world (aside from Commies) were “strangers.” People that you didn’t know were out to do you harm, so just stay away from them. The message took sunk in; I became leery of any interactions with people I didn’t know. Even as an adult I maintained the impression that when I walked out my front door I was entering a low-trust environment.

So it was with some hesitancy that I took my first Uber. But when I did a new world opened up to me. It wasn’t just a ride with a stranger (I had, after all, been in a taxi before) it was an expansion of my “circle of trust.” As economist Tim Hartford says, “One of the underrated achievements of the modern world has been to develop ways to extend the circle of trust by depersonalising it.”
Trusting strangers not only makes my life easier, it makes our country more prosperous. Hartford adds,

Steve Knack, an economist at the World Bank with a long-standing interest in trust, once told me that if one takes a broad enough view of trust, “it would explain basically all the difference between the per capita income of the United States and Somalia”. In other words, without trust — and its vital complement, trustworthiness — there is no prospect of economic development.

Simple activities become arduous in a low-trust society. How can you be sure you won’t be robbed on the way to the corner store? Hire a bodyguard? (Can you trust him?) The watered-down milk is in a locked fridge. As for something more complex like arranging a mortgage, forget about it.

Prosperity not only requires trust, it also encourages it.

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).