Cultures of Trust and Civility Foster Wellbeing

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Cultures of Trust and Civility Foster Wellbeing

By: John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on August 20, 2014 FREE Insights Topics:

Few professors go to economics from anthropology, as did I. An anthropology background affects how one sees the world. It places far more emphasis on culture.

Most decisions are based on information and incentives. Culture creates powerful incentives, ones often far more powerful than money. As Nobel Prize winning economist Doug North explained, culture constrains choices. For example, however low the price compared to a Big Mac or BK Broiler, few Americans would be tempted by a sandwich made from beagles, cockers, labs or poodles. (For cultural contrast see: AskaKorean)

Decades ago my colleagues in MSU's economics department were derisive toward cultural variables: "Cultural explanations are the refuge of those who can't do the econometrics". However economics is a distinct sub-culture within the social sciences. Conventional economics limited acceptable explanations. Culture, like dogs for dinner, was out of bounds.

Economists' claims don't reduce the explanatory power of culture. It affects behavior in predictable ways. Consider migration. Recently, about ten percent of Americans move each year. (About 36 million Americans Moved in the Last Year - US Census Bureau)

Most remain within the same zip code or a neighboring one. Others move for higher employment opportunities, for example to North Dakota and Montana's Bakken Oil Patch. Jobs are the primary drivers for relocating there: The Bakken isn't Bozeman. Only the pay is better.

Movers not transferred by their organization or driven by financial exigencies normally relocate to places where they expect to be culturally and environmentally more comfortable. Their incentives to move are driven by much more than money.

Some cities repel families seeking wholesome lives. Political commentator Kevin Williamson explains this in his article, "Who Lost the Cities?"

For years, our major cities were undermined by a confluence of four unhappy factors; higher taxes, defective schools, crime, and declining economic opportunity. Together, these weighed much more heavily upon the middle class than upon the very wealthy and the very poor. ... How many people (moved away) matters, but which people matters, too: They were the ones with the means and the strongest incentive to relocate. ... Chicago lost a fifth of its population, Baltimore nearly a third. ... Upwardly mobile people and ... those with an investment in the future — care a great deal about schools, economic opportunity, and safety. And they know where the city limits are.

We have decades of experience hosting visitors from nearly all American states, most from major cities. More specifically, FREE has brought hundreds of federal judges, economists, law professors, foundation and corporate officers, and writers to conferences on economics and the environment. Few had been here before but most like to return. When they do, nearly all remark on growth in the Bozeman area.

Most seem amazed. It's really not surprising. Culture provides much of the explanation. It involves both push and pull. Much of the push comes from the four factors Williamson lists; taxes, schools; crime, and declining economic opportunity. The pull includes civility, courtesy, cleanliness, and trust. These values cluster and agglutinate here. Put them in an attractive, amenity rich environment, for example four ski areas and four Blue Ribbon trout streams within an hour, and one has a strong magnet indeed.

And this brings me to last weekend in the Bozeman area. Ramona and I attended two community events, both quite telling of the culture. Saturday we enjoyed the Manhattan Potato Festival. It included a car and craft show and live music from two bands. One of our ranch's restored antique trucks followed the color guard. Here is the back-story.

Stockman Bank handles FREE's accounts. Stockman is opening a new branch in Manhattan and they requested our 1957 International Harvester A 140 4x4 for their float in the Potato Festival parade. This orange and black truck was purchased by the Montana Power Company for pole setting. We put on a flat-bed and use it for feeding livestock in the winter's snows.

The truck cab is bright orange with black fenders. The mascot animal for Manhattan High School it the orange and black Bengal tiger.

After church Sunday we enjoyed another community event, the much larger Bozeman car show, "Cruising on Main Street". Bozeman's Cancer Support Community (CSC) produces this annual event. (We support CSC and initiated their fly-fishing program. Learners fish on our ponds several times each summer. Professional guides volunteer their services--Bozeman is that kind of place. A CSC group is fly-fishing on our ranch as I write this.)

Cruising on Main Street, like the Potato Festival, was a treat on multiple dimensions. Trust is an important dimension of community, one some people intuit. Here are the two cases, one from the Potato Festival, the other from Cruising Main.

Potatoes first. Ramona and I biked to Cottonwood School before driving to Manhattan. She wore her bike shirt, the kind with pocket in the back. Main Street was lined with booths selling food and crafts. 

We ate lunch at a Senior Center fund-raiser. Lunches were big and fully stuffed baked potatoes, $5.00 each. Ramona placed change from a $20.00 into the right back pocket of her bike shirt, the same pocket as her iPhone.

After lunch when walking, Ramona's phone rang unnoticed by her, and the bills fell out when she answered. We had gone perhaps twenty feet when we heard this ring out: "Lady, you dropped this!" A young woman was hurrying toward us holding Ramona's money.

No one here has been surprised when we tell this story. Why? Because culture matters. Courtesy and trust are the norm. People like such places.

Our Sunday story is less dramatic but illustrates the same principle, people here have learned to be trusting. This is no accident; it's part of the culture.

CSC's Cruising on Main Street is much larger than Manhattan's Potato Festival but has no parade. Instead, much of downtown Main Street is closed to traffic. Scores of hot-rod, customized, antique, exotic, or merely highly unusual cars, pickups, delivery trucks, motorcycles, and flatbeds line the street. Several dozen food venders and specialty merchants are interspersed along with two loud bands. The street is packed with people milling, gawking, discussing with machine owners, and eating.

I stopped at a "kettle corn" stand to buy a small bag. The owner was looking away, busy popping a new batch in a huge kettle. He noticed me and told me the price, $3.00.

I had only twenty-dollar bills. Here is the important part. The kettle corn operator said, "There is a stack of bills there beside the cash box. Tens are on the bottom. Make your change and enjoy my kettle corn." I did both. Even more, I greatly enjoyed our trusting environment.

Most successful people travel a lot and are alert to potential changes that could improve their lives. Changing one's residence has multiple dimensions of change. I can't imagine how to measure them but civility, courtesy, cleanliness, and trust are important ones. All are abundantly obvious here. These features help make a community attractive.

In the Bozeman area these cultural qualities are combined with great environmental amenities, excellent transportation, good schools and health care. That's why nearly all of our returning visitors remark on the booming Bozeman area. 

Going back to economics from anthropology, trust reduces transaction costs. Trust implies people can devote less time and attention to monitoring relations among one another. Agreements can be informal and cordial, not contractual. A culture with high a high degree of trust is an easy place to live. That is an important reason our area is so attractive.


This FREE Insight is a Hayekian approach to social trust and cultural comfort. Hutterites excepted, when individuals move they change their group. Most want to become a member of the new group and will adopt some of that group's rules. Norms identifying acceptable behavior guides this cultural transmission.

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