The Incentives that Move Us: A Window into Our Nature

As often as I think about and use the concept of human nature, an observer might think I have a firm grasp of who we are at the most fundamental of levels.  Quite simply, I don’t.

First, generalizing about who we are is as full of downside risks as hazarding a guess about the foreign policy details of a Trump Presidency.  Best of luck with that project!

Second, even if you had a strong hunch about the nature of humans, you would know up front that descriptions of human nature must exceed the length of a Twitter Tweat and be replete with caveats and dependendent clauses.

However, I am not sure how we would suggest policies, design change strategies, or form relationships unless we regulalry use the mental heuristic of assuming that the people with whom we live have proclivities, tendencies that unless interfered with will play out in human affairs.

Economics, for example, has traditionally retained its assumptions about human nature from its origen as a discipline in a world of severe material deprivation. In that era, survival, not meaning-of-life questions prevailed. As long as such a scenario exists, the human nature assumptions of economics probably hold up. At the bottom rung of Maslow’s Hierarchy, life is severe. The residents of a world where sustenance is an iffy proposition will adaptively be overwhelmingly rapacious and egocentric. Anyone interacting with such people had best be on his or her guard because a person trying to survive has placed any native generosity on the back burner.

But our “nature”, (and here I am using the term to refer to our tendencies, not some iron-clad certitude.) is mutable or adaptable. As Amitai Etzioni points out in The Moral Dimension: Toward A New Economics we have reached a point now where our essence consists of vestigial “meness” AND glimmers of “weness.” His thinking in this regard is the basis for the development of communitarianism as a middle space between Capitalism and Socialism.

Much of modern thinking in the social sciences is stuck in the “meness” assumptions about human nature from habit and because predicting behavior on the basis of those assumptins is easier to model and grasp. Money is broadly assumed to be the stand-in for projected happiness for humans, and, consequently, we largely ignore more ethical motivational systems as impractical. We reason that if you want students, employees, rich or poor to be more productive, then we should pay them more. The resulting portrait of who we are is ignoble and reductive.

In a market culture, every human activity becomes a commodity with a price to be paid to those who produce the desired benefit. By this logic public school tachers, social workers, public defenders, those highly qualified linguists at the NSA who work 60 hour weeks out of love of country, as well as those who provide the caretaker role in our health system share the following curse: they are either inept and are therefore stuck in relatively low-paying positions compared to what capabilities they possess, or naive about what is truly important, or trying to maximize some psychological drive that is ultimatley translated into monetary form in their minds.

A recent provocative book suggests that monetary incentives not only demean who we are, but they also do not produce intended results as successfully as motivational processes reliant on a more noble view of human nature.  Sam Bowles’ newest book, The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens, is an extension of many of his  recent books ; it highlights the sharing, caring, and psychological empathetic element of human nature. In other words, if he is correct, we need not see one another as wolves ready to rip food and shelter from our family if only they sense an opportunity. Bowles’ book presents illustration after illustration of how monetary incentives crowd out moral virtues AND fail to incentivize efficiently.

But Bowles is always quick to claim that the alternatives to market cultures have hardly been exemplars of ethical excellence, and that overall, markets have encouraged certain virtues like prudence.

Those of you who want a more robust critique of  ethical deflation in a market culture could supplement Bowles’ work with Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

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