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Some Social Capital

Today at Home Depot I did something that I, and others, increasingly do: use the self-checkout lanes.

All sorts of things can be said about self-checkout.  For example, it’s an example of technology eliminating some jobs — that is, doing away with the need to use human labor in the time-consuming process of manning checkout aisles.  More of the scarcest resource, the ultimate resource, is freed-up to produce other goods and services that would otherwise remain unproduced.

But the point that struck me most this morning as I watched my fellow customers use the self-checkout lanes is the fact that an enormous amount of trust is necessary to make self-checkout work.

I’m sure that Home Depot and other stores that use self-checkout lanes have systems in place to monitor these lanes and protect against cheating.  But with just a tad bit of cleverness, a devious and dishonest person could easily cheat the store.

The fact that the number of self-checkout lanes is increasing tells me that these lanes are proving to be successful — proving to be worth their costs.  In turn, this fact tells me that the people who shop in these stores are generally honest.  The number of cheaters, although surely positive, is not great enough to make the provision of self-checkout lanes a losing proposition for retailers.

This honesty creates and justifies trust in strangers.  This trust in strangers, in turn, makes possible some transactions and production and distribution processes that would otherwise be too costly.  As a result of this ‘social capital’ of honest, trustworthiness, and trust, we are all wealthier.

By the way, the self-checkout computers offer a Spanish-language option in addition to an English-language option.  And each of the three other customers who I observed this morning using the self-checkout lanes were Hispanic.