Have you ever ridden in a jeepney? Chances are that you haven’t, for even if you have visited the Philippines, unless you are a backpacker, you would have stuck to taxis. In our travels, we met expats who had lived there for years but had never been in a jeepney.

Well, you are missing on a practical lesson how decentralized trust works.

The jeepney is actually the most popular public means of transportation in the Philippines. It was originally made from the American jeeps left over from WWII. It is also the cheapest way to travel because of its open rear door design, the jeepney can pick up and drop off passengers anywhere. Having said that, it is not the safest way of transport, either mechanically (too old), or because of its seating configuration (a long bench with no seat belts, very low ceiling, combined with constant and sudden stopping).

What was fascinating for me was actually how its payment system works: it is all based on trust. Decentralized trust in fact. As it is not optimal to have a ticket collector, the jeepney driver is also tasked with collecting the money for the trip. The problem is that the entrance is all the way in the back. Not only the driver cannot collect the fare in advance, but he has to rely on other passengers to pass on the money to him. Many times he has to pass back change. The fare also depends on the destination which is shouted as the money changes hands, which adds an additional variable to keep track of. All this while driving, so obviously the driver cannot possibly follow up on all this!

But the system works. Passengers can see who has paid and who has not and they have an interest to keep its integrity in check not because of a fear of a fine (light regulation with minimal monitoring) but the realization that if it breaks, it means everyone has to take the more expensive and less convenient bus. Of course the system can also be ‘gamed’: if ‘majority’ of the passengers agree to cheat but the level/cost of cooperation is too high.

As societies become more complex it is basically suboptimal to rely on a centralized authority. An additional complication is if those societies do not have a strong institutional infrastructure, like in most of EM, or the traditional sources of authority start to be mistrusted, like in a lot of the developed world.  Decentralized trust then becomes a necessity and a prerequisite for maintaining the proper functioning of society. It seems to me that EM has the first mover advantage here and is likely to leapfrog the developed world.