by John Baden

My economist friends often stress the efficiency losses when government favors powerful interests. Alas, these friends discount the accompanying decay of trust. Such erosion naturally follows when democratic governments allocate wealth and opportunities.

This sorry process is pronounced in large, complex, heterogeneous societies. That corrosive, trust-reducing process is increasingly evident in America and other large, heterogeneous nations. (fn 1)  And as trust becomes more scarce, people seek it out.

Among American states Montana ranks highly on trust. The state wasn't settled by Quakers and it wasn’t always this way. Highwaymen, rustlers, robbers, and bilkers of Indians, among other scoundrels, punctuated its early years. While never eliminated, such characters were gradually weeded out, many shot or hung, and an ethical culture developed. Today the default presumption is trust.

We witnessed this last week when Ramona and I took a road trip across Montana's High Line, U. S. Highway 2.  We visited small towns such as Belt ("Want to run a tab honey?"), Chester ("It's closed but I'll call Joel and he will open the museum for you."), and Fort Benton. ("You have $100 credit from your last visit.")

People we met on this 970-mile road trip were especially nice, open, and trusting. Putting resort areas aside, Montana visitors sense this trust throughout the state. That is one important but unacknowledged reason it has become so attractive; people appreciate a high-trust society. (fn 2)

Montana attracts many mature people who could live nearly anywhere they’d like. Some arrivals are retired, others building their lives.  Just as commuter railroads led to prosperous suburbs in the East and Midwest around 1900, consider the Philadelphia Mainline suburbs, (fn 3) technology permits Montana to become a "suburb" of major commercial centers.  Thanks to the Web, we have friends and neighbors who "commute" to Chicago, Houston, LA, or Orlando while living here.  

These retirees and career builders have been successful and expect to remain so. Many are creative, comfortable, and confident. Decisions to relocate were not driven by desperation, despair, or destitution. These families are financially comfortable and want to be here. A trusting environment is one reason.

scan0057A testimony of trust in MontanaThey don't move here to maximize their financial income but rather to better their lives in multiple ways. While seldom mentioned, living in a trusting, safe environment is an important one. A trusting community complements environmental and recreation benefits.

University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds often discusses the importance of trust and reposts how politicians diminish it. His argument supports my oft-pronounced observation that remote governments become efficient engines of plunder. Their efficiency lies in economizing on bloodshed.

Here are selections from Reynolds' Instapundit blog of April 23. (fn 4)

“When leaders cheat, followers ... follow

The trust that underlies a law-abiding society is rotting away thanks to double-dealing in Washington.

America has been — and, for the moment, remains — a high-trust society. In high-trust societies, people extend trust to strangers.... In low-trust societies, trust seldom extends beyond close family, and everybody cheats if they can get away with it.

High-trust societies are much nicer places to live than low-trust ones. But a fish rots from the head and the head of our society is looking pretty rotten....” (fn5)

American society is going through a self -selection process as people relocate within it toward cultural and environmental comfort. Just as climate change makes Montana a more attractive place to live (we no longer expect two or three weeks of -20ºF or -30º F) its culture of trust likewise appreciates despite national deterioration.  

Ethical people, the kind you want to live among, are increasingly sensitive to and uncomfortable with political predation. They resent the subsequent reduction in trust, one consequence of intrusive government. The cultural decay that follows is probably worse than the inefficiencies my friends decry.

(fn 1)  Due to their small size and homogeneity Scandinavian countries long enjoyed some immunity to these pathologies: They could indulge socialist fantasies. The immunity is eroding, the loss accentuated by the intrusion of people from alien cultures. Fortunately, Nordic nations retained sufficient political cohesion and good sense to reform, especially education and welfare.

(fn 2) In a Gallup poll reported on April 24, 2014, Montana residents led the nation in ranking their state the best place to live. "Illinois rocked by high-profile scandals, may explain why Illinois residents have the least trust in their state government across all 50 states. Additionally, they are among the most resentful about the amount they pay in state taxes."

(fn 3) Main Line Video Guide, 2013. In the 19th Century the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad (also known as the Paoli Local) was constructed. ... The construction of sprawling estates attracted Philadelphia elite, many of whom had one house in the city and another larger country home on the Main Line. Today the Main Line is a vibrant collection of towns in the Western suburbs of Philadelphia named after the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

(fn 4) Reynolds runs the Instapundit blog "pjmedia" (  Quotes from Monday, May 23. This blog runs his USA Today columns.

(fn 5) See Edward Banfield's classic book on Southern Italy, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, Free Press, 1958.


Editor's Note: John Baden found Bozeman in the late 1960s when looking for the best place to build his life.   He explored and ranked every town in the Northwest having a four year college or university.  Bozeman ranked first and he left Bloomington, Indiana in 1970 to accept an offer from MSU. He earned a Ph. D. in economic anthropology from Indiana University and was a NSF post doc in environmental policy.   He founded the Foundation for Research in Economics and the Environment (FREE) in 1985 which he and his wife Dr. Ramona Marotz-Baden lead.  FREE's mission is to harmonize three oft conflicting values; environmental quality, responsible liberty, and modest prosperity.  John and Ramona live on an irrigated Gallatin Gateway ranch, all but thirty acres of which they placed in a conservation easement.