*The Moral Economy*

The author is Sam Bowles and the subtitle is Why Good Incentives are No Substitute for Good Citizens.


Due out in May.


A related PDF is here:


I see! Liberalism’s mistake is that by providing institutions that make “wicked” people do good things, it may make “good” people wicked! Logically, therefore, liberal institutions must be replaced by ones that guarantee wicked behavior!

My only reply to that PDF is "bwhahahhaa".

So if I have parsed that PDF correctly the argument goes

(I) In theory, there is a problem that markets and other liberal instutitions might erode civic virtue and thus be counterproductive.

(II) Empirical evidence shows that this problem doesn't exist in practice, indeed liberal, free-market societies have a good deal more civic virtue than the others.

(III) Therefore we should do the following things to solive problem (I).

Dude what? The funny thing is that (in so far as I can perceive them) I approve of some of what he says in section III, but I can't see how the overall argument hanges together.

"When a man knows he is to be hanged...it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

So, anti-Macchiavelli? All government is inherently coercive? Nothing voluntary?

I voluntarily withhold information that is private to protect people's interests even if it isn't illegal. There is a candidate that may very well be president that broke laws and disclosed secrets for her own interest. We will see if there is any morality among the powerful. I doubt it, she won't be indicted in spite of FBI recommendations. I won't take any moral preaching from that sort.

It isn't me who needs some kind of incentive to not do wrong things. It is those in power. The only thing that will concentrate their minds is the reality that their necks will be stretched.

I find this truly amusing, it is akin to the music industry who sold rebellion and rejection of all standards of any sort for decades finding that the people paying for their livelihood got the point and refused to pay for the music they wanted to listen to. Suddenly all the bien pensants are finding the benefit to morality. Golly gee. After selling baby parts or before?


@derek - you peaked my interest. What FBI stuff? Is the the Libyan embassy / Clinton unsecured email matter? Yawn. If so it pails in relation to Reagan Iran-Contra scandal, where the CIA assisted drug lords to get illegal weapons for Iran, in exchange for some dumb arse American hostages, which are legion all over the planet (those were the days when the US Marines would rescue some hapless dumb US tourist; I'm afraid for my sake those days are long gone, lol).

Free .50 caliber sniper rifles and machine guns to mexican drug cartels?

Or, 150 billion to whacky job Iran?

Oh well.

You make my point Ray. I'm not going to take lessons on morality from a politician or a bureaucrat. They need lessons on morality from the population, hard lessons.

Cover looks too similar to your book.

I saw that too. Lots of carrots on covers, when incentives are the issue. Not so many sticks!

(Why is there such a preference -- at least in the educated West -- for positive reinforcement, when negative reinforcement has a role to play too?)


Have you ever been hit with a carrot? It hurts like hell.

Have you ever eaten a stick?

Yes, they must be in cahoots.

Here is videos of the Castle Lectures the book is based on:

What's moral? Germans in the 1930s-1940s no doubt believed their actions were moral. That's the problem with one person or an entire country deciding what is moral. Of course, we live by the golden rule - those with the gold, make the rules. And that's another problem: the owners of the gold believe the more they own, the better off they and the rest of us. Of course, that's not true, notwithstanding what some wish to believe because it's to their benefit to believe it. I don't believe anybody has the moral high ground, whether on the left or the right. Our beliefs fit what's personally opportunistic. And that's the conundrum: to support the absurdity of the libertarian position or the self-righteousness of the progressive position.

Or, y'know, be a moderate and support real world common sense not ideological purity.

Here here!

We could call it the "Three Fifths of a White Person" position.

There are ethical positions which do not require compromise.

Agreed, but not as many as internet bloviators think there are.

When we look at the great breadth and depth of human history, what do we see?

I would say a common core of decency, but also a common tendency to define an out-group and throw decency out the window.

Those poor dumb cowboys in Oregon seem decent enough, but they have found a way to frame the national government as out-group, and treat them differently. That their in-group might be religious in nature hardly strengthens the point that secularists are the source all of such problems.

Similarly, my thought was, "That depends what is the definition of the word 'good'."

"I don't believe anybody has the moral high ground".

You sure about that? Have you had any daughters? Met any characters at a gas station?

Sometimes you have to make the call, this is good, this is bad, be ready to act on it, mister.

@rayward - only 33% of Germans voted for Hitler. IMO the Catholic Party failed when they did not endorse a non-Hitler candidate (ditto arguably the "Hitler Pope, Pope Pius XII, though arguably he was a captive victim in Mussolini's Italy). Once Hitler had his Night of Long Knives, he Crossed the Rubicon, nobody dared oppose him, and The Rest is History.

I'd differ with the "and the rest of us" part of your phrase:
"the owners of the gold believe the more they own, the better off they and the rest of us". Hardly any guarantees about that part. Watch out for government, but not the owners of the gold? Seems foolhardy to me. .

Here is a link to an video summary of some themes: http://tuvalu.santafe.edu/~bowles/

The social often gets overlooked in economics, even though we witness irrational cascades and herding. Social norms and expectancies are an incentive you cannot pay for but for which you gain if others march to the same beat.

We can improve the mean quality of citizenship in this country by loading Bryan Caplan into a trebuchet and sending him sailing over the Mexican border. I'm sure there will be some person on the other side who will be practical and check to see if he has any cash on him.

I love how much BC irks nativists. It's his most endearing quality.

It stands to reason that he would be well received south of the border, a catholic country. He does advocate having more children.

And, for good measure, he approves of them immigrating. So on two counts he is on all fours with most Mexicans, if you pardon the numerical pun.

"I love how much BC irks nativists. It’s his most endearing quality."

Irks? I think you must have understood. Art Deco was merely offering to Open the Borders of Mexico up for Bryan Caplan.

*only endearing quality

Morality is inherently subjective and based on aggregate opinion. If morality were objective and based on some hard immutable logic, then it would be possible that every human alive would judge wrong, and that simply isn't possible.

Religion has been the institution that defines morality of society. Western civilization has a morality fundamentally determined by Christianity, even among westerners who are fiercely atheist. Recently, society has stripped religion of that authority, and there is a moral vacuum.

The Age of Enlightenment and the rejection of religious state does not support that claim. Ever heard of Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers. People can develop morality from Reason.

Rousseau abandoned all five of his children shortly after birth to an institution where they almost certainly died.

How many secular socialists and communists romanticize a perfect society while happily crushing the individuals within that society.

Bernie Sanders talks a lot about fairness and compassion but on a personal level he's said to be very unpleasant.

An atheist myself I nevertheless have an unsettled feeling that our world would be worse off without the teachings of Christianity and devout Christians.

Evidently you didn't like the Buddhists.

Agree with all of this.

And to paraphrase Dostoyevsky--"reason" provides very little justification for not abusing others as much we can get away with.

a zero-sum game mentality always has someone to blame

Guess you didn't read the book. Ask yourself: what does the character ultimately do and what is the message.

"Bernie Sanders talks a lot about fairness and compassion but on a personal level he’s said to be very unpleasant."

Being "said to be very unpleasant" -- whatever that actually means -- doesn't have anything to do with fairness or compassion. Most people learn early enough in life that there are "pleasant" people who won't hesitate to engage in dishonest or disloyal behavior when given the chance and gruff or seemingly harsh individuals can often turn out to be scrupulously fair and generous when it comes to professional or public life.

Massimo January 29, 2016 at 5:29 pm

Morality is inherently subjective and based on aggregate opinion. If morality were objective and based on some hard immutable logic, then it would be possible that every human alive would judge wrong, and that simply isn’t possible.

Every single one of those sentences is either not true or arguable. They need defending, not just stating them. A lot of people, including the Catholic Church, would argue that morality is not subjective. In fact the mainstream of Western philosophy would deny that morality is subjective until modern times. Even if it were so, morality is not based on aggregate opinion. If it was, there would never be any change. Physics is objective and based on some hard logic. But just a short while ago the entire planet rejected Relativity and those that had heard of him, supported Newton. So the entire planet was wrong. No reason to think it would not be true in morality. Look at slavery.

We -- and I use the term to refer to the modern West, fully aware that it is now "modern" and "West" -- are one of the few regions and eras that has NOT practiced slavery. The history of our species is the history of homo sapiens enslaving others. Frankly I think we -- modern West again -- should get more credit than we do, but I am not holding my breath.

This is just one example of how wrong the mass(es) can be. And, it is an example of how views can change, via force and/or moral suasion.

Here is a quick look at how much credit the modern West is owed: https://vimeo.com/128373915

Of course, if you're inclined, you can "reason" that the losers of that war were not the true modern West, and that it was all their fault, etc. That's what's so great about reason—it can take you anywhere you need to go.

morality is rationalization

…and the proportion of the population and the degree within the individual with access to and availability of Good Institutions (mostly of the secular kind) is directly proportional to the overall Goodness (and likely productivity, useful (in the sense of economic value) creativity, and productive social cohesion - though it is not linear. The point is finding that sweet spot in Good Institution cost per capita to Goodness per Individual. It is likely a lot higher here - perhaps the Scandinavian countries are closest.
Interesting? Would the Bad citizens (those of negative contribution) be included to come up with a Goodness co-efficient - almost GINI like?

The title is almost silly, because without good incentives to become a Good Citizen, there won't be so many.

The atheist PC culture has many bad incentives, and many people who could have become good citizens are, instead, being incentivized into becoming bad. Of course, the anti-free speech professor asking "for a little muscle" might disagree about whether she was really being bad.

When the founder of Mozilla is kicked out because of a small campaign contribution, to me that looks bad. But others seem to disagree, and claim he's not a good citizen. Lack of an agreed to set of criteria means good - bad is becoming ... democratically determined (semi-), by mob rules.

"because without good incentives to become a Good Citizen, there won’t be so many."

I think the problem Bowles is trying to highlight is that statements like these are either tautological and therefore trivial or else exceptionally narrow. Are people who volunteer for military service, vote, donate to charity, etc. responding to "incentives"? In some cases and on some margins, sure. For instance, some people are bad at lying and don't want to be shamed or stigmatized by their peers for failing to vote. But then the sense that people who don't perform certain civic duties like voting deserve a certain degree of approbation is itself part of what sustains the idea of citizenship. It isn't that incentives don't matter, it's that our own actions and the way we judge others' is the product of identity and a certain moral framework that goes beyond utility and individual preferences. It is noteworthy that the concept of citizenship and of what makes a good citizen comes from the Ancient Greeks and long predates economic theory.

My bullshit detector is on ... Define "good"

Good people don't need governing. Bad people can't be governed.

The brown chihuahua at the almost-no-kill shelter who snaps at the unlovely ankles of the sweet old lady who almost - but who did not - adopt him, is to be pitied, not to be criticized, Either you care about other people or you don't. God can easily change the bad people into good people. He wants them to do it on their own, if they can. "Governing" is a trivial pastime, from this perspective. That being said, I agree with your comment.

What if they are too violent or stupid to allow in a workplace? There seems to be a growing number of people worldwide who are basically incapable of self-rule. And you're right, they are to be pitied. The contempt should be reserved for those who think they can unleash them in an advanced economy and the magic dirt of civilization will turn them into architects and software developers.

"Blessed is he that understandeth concerning the needy and the poor: the Lord will deliver him in the evil day." Better than Dante and Shakespeare, eh?

I've always leaned towards an objective morality being true, but the harder question is whether its discoverable by man. Attempts to use "reason" have all failed, and seem destined to fail by the logic of reason itself. Revelation is philosophically sounder, but we have all sorts of conflicting revelations and no great way to judge between them.

Let's be honest, most of us just use a mix of gut and thought while muddling through. If we have any self awareness we know that we are probably missing the mark in some way, but our only option is to push forward in our lives and do the best we can.

That's what separate countries are for.

I think a good example of objective morality is the emergence of forgiving tit for tat as a winning strategy in iterated prisoners dilemma games. I suspect that if you combine tournaments like that with better models of human nature, a number of universal principles might emerge.

My guess is that some evolutionary strategies are more robust in a generalized way (tit for two tats works in many games), but that none work in all situations. This is especially true if the opponent knows what strategy you are using, because every strategy has an exploitable loophole.

As a simple example, most great card players probably have a basic strategy that works well most of the time, but they have to be able to adopt new play styles in response to competitor actions. No one play style is the solution that works in all cases, even if it's a good default. If you are too committed to "I will never do X" someone is going to come up with a strategy that exploits your X limitation to the max.

Can anyone familiar with this work give examples of the incentives that would "crowd in" good/moral behaviour instead of "crowd out" ?

The only example I can currently think of is the corporate, possibly government blessed, attempt to create a score of citizen behaviour in china, but this particular idea is a relatively new one and couldn't be the basis of this book.

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