Every autumn, a neighbor up the street sets out a couple hundred pumpkins, along with a metal cash box and placard reading, “Honor System: $5 for small pumpkins, $6 for large ones.” Inspired to learn more about whether selling things on the “honor system” really works, I came across an interesting little book called Honor System Marketing: Discovering Honesty, Trust, and Profit Amongst the Goodness of People, by Jeff McPherson. McPherson is an agriculture consultant and farmer who has been “honor system marketing”—that is, selling produce at unsupervised stands on the “honor system”—for decades. After travelling and meeting other honor marketers from across the US, he wrote this book about the advantages, pitfalls, and philosophy of honor marketing.

honor system marketing

Apparently, honor system marketing (HSM) can have some financial benefits. Eliminating cashiers means eliminating a significant cost of running a market. And since markets operating on the honor system don’t need to be staffed, they can be left open around the clock, even on holidays. But there are other non-remunerative advantages, too, McPherson tells us.

One is that HSM forces us to be more trusting of others. According to McPherson, one of the biggest challenges of being an honor system marketer is resting easy at night, knowing that your market is exposed to theft. McPherson is certainly a practical man: he has no patience with thieves, and he takes proactive measures if he detects (or is tipped off about) shoplifting. He also urges would-be honor system marketers to keep in mind that theft occurs at staffed markets also, and that the savings on employee salary often is greater than the losses from any increased theft. But setting all that aside, McPherson estimates that only about 2% of his customers have ever stolen anything. Since in most HSM scenarios theft is surprisingly low, HSM tends to make us more trusting of our neighbors and complete strangers alike.

Much the same occurs on the other side of the transaction. Surprised customers tell McPherson that they enjoy feeling trusted enough to shop without supervision. However, McPherson does lose a certain percentage of customers to “paranoia”:

Even though they are totally honest, they are still a bit insecure about shopping where there is no attendant. They will avoid contact with situations that associate them with dishonesty.

And here we arrive at an important lesson about honor system marketing: that it assumes virtue in a society that assumes vice. Apparently, our society assumes vice to such a degree that some of us feel uncomfortable being trusted even when we are trustworthy. Why would that happen?

honeyrun farm

It is an axiom of liberal thought that good administrative systems separate powers, install checks and balances, and devise systems of oversight and transparency. Such structures not only set the honest interests of various groups against each other, but also discourage corruption and tyranny. This means, essentially, that good liberal administrative systems assume vice—they are constructed with the assumption that there is a significant possibility that individuals in the institution will abuse their power or prerogatives.

Assuming vice is certainly prudent and I’m not saying governments and other administrative bodies shouldn’t do it. McPherson, for instance, freely admits that HSM won’t work in areas with a high crime rate, and we all must recognize that unchecked power or unaudited privilege tends to corrupt. But we also need to recognize that assuming vice replaces strength of system for strength of character, and—whatever the advantages of doing this may be—the costs are significant. Assuming vice diminishes us in our own eyes and the eyes of others, and when overdone it encourages us to become the type of people we’re trying to protect ourselves against. As McPherson’s example of the HSM shoppers panicked by the trust placed in them shows, the more we rely on a system to control us, the less prepared we are for the freedom to control ourselves.

In fact, when systems are overly trusted, we fail to see the need for self-mastery at all. Many of my Professional Ethics students begin the semester under the impression that in business, the only constraints on acquisition are laws and company policy. It takes a few weeks to get them to realize that there are moral obligations not captured by the law or policy. I used to think that my students were morally corrupt or selfish, but I’ve gradually come to think that they are just naïve: they think they live in a world where the policies are sound, respected, and enforced, so all that remains for the individual to do is pursue his or her interests within those limits. They have too much faith in the system.

Perhaps the most extreme consequence of focusing on virtuous systems instead of virtuous individuals is the “You asked for it” fallacy. The “still not asking for it” campaign, for instance, aims to show that just because a woman isn’t as vigilant about her safety as she might be, she is not thereby “asking for,” or consenting to, assault. Coming full circle, I know of some people who steal at grocery self-checkouts—not because they are thieves generally, but because they feel that if a grocery store cannot be troubled to deter theft, then they (the customers) have no obligation not to abuse the system. Failing to assume vice in others doesn’t exculpate them from their bad behavior. It may be unwise to assume virtue. Many honor-minded people have suffered because of their impulse to assume virtue. But however responsible the honor-minded are for their imprudence, they are not responsible for the wrongs they suffer because of it, and I think they deserve credit for trying to elevate those around them with their trust.

What I admire about HSM is that it pushes us to assume virtue in a culture that excessively assumes vice. I have no interest in removing the checks and balances of our government, nor am I calling for less political oversight. (Indeed, I think we need more oversight of government, and less oversight of citizens!) My point rather is that there is a sweet spot between the two extremes of assuming vice and assuming virtue, and that honor theory can add another consideration to familiar liberal notions—such as privacy—that counteract the forces of transparency, oversight, and surveillance.