The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens - Samuel Bowles (2016)
Any book in the making for almost thirty years is indebted to many helping hands. This one is based in part on my Castle Lectures at Yale University, where the critical commentary of Bryan Garsten, Phil Gorski, Laurie Santos, Steven Smith, and Chris Udry resulted in many improvements.
This is the second time that I have learned from Yale’s social science faculty. The first was as a student in the precursor to the Ethics, Politics and Economics major, which sponsored my Castle lectures. My first debt, then, is to my mentor and inspiration in that program, Charles Lindblom, who pushed me to think analytically while trespassing the well-guarded boundaries of the academic disciplines. (The tradition that Lindblom championed at Yale is still evident in the disciplines of those who commented on my Castle Lectures: a historian, a psychologist, two political scientists, and an economist.) My subsequent study of economic history as a doctoral student with Alexander Gerschenkron at Harvard convinced me that the large questions about how societies might be better governed and how they evolve over time are worth asking and sometimes might have answers, though not necessarily the answers I was hoping for at the time.
During my work on this project since the late 1980s, my thinking on these issues has been shaped by the members of the September Seminar past and present—Pranab Bardhan, Robert Brenner, Harry Brighouse, the late Gerald Cohen, Joshua Cohen, Jon Elster, Suresh Naidu, Philippe van Parijs, Adam Prezeworski, John Roemer, Rebecca Saxe, Seana Shiffrin, Hillel Steiner, Robert van der Veen, and Erik Olin Wright, and by the Santa Fe Institute Working Group on the Coevolution of Behavior and Institutions (since 1998)—Larry Blume, Robert Boyd, Herbert Gintis, and Peyton Young. Gintis’ doctoral dissertation on how society shapes our preferences and my collaboration with him since has profoundly influenced my thinking on these issues.
Many of the ideas in the pages that follow were first tried out during the late 1990s in the Norms and Preferences Research Network headed by Robert Boyd and Gintis, whose members I thank, especially Colin Camerer, Martin Daly, Ernst Fehr, Simon Gaechter, Edward Glaeser, George Loewenstein, and the late Margo Wilson. For their comments on earlier drafts of this work and other contributions to the research, I would particularly like to thank (in addition to those already mentioned) Mahzarin Banaji, Yochai Benkler, Ragnhild Haugli Braaten, Juan Camilo Cardenas, Wendy Carlin, Ruth Grant, Joshua Greene, Jonathan Haidt, Kieran Healy, Bernd Irlenbusch, Rachel Kranton, Ugo Pagano, Elizabeth Phelps, Sandra Polanía-Reyes, Carlos Sickert Rodriguez, Daria Roithmayr, Paul Seabright, and, especially, Elisabeth Jean Wood.
My collaborators Sung-Ha Hwang and Sandra Polanía-Reyes are virtual coauthors of parts of the book; I am grateful to them for permission to use the results of our joint work. Chapter V draws upon work published in Philosophy and Public Affairs (2011), and I thank the journal for permission for its inclusion in this work. Chapters III and IV include material published jointly with Polanía-Reyes in the Journal of Economic Literature (2012).)
Susan Karr, Chiara Valentini, and, especially, Erica Benner helped me understand Niccolò Machiavelli, a figure who plays a leading and complicated role in the story I tell. Translations from the Italian of passages in Machiavelli’s Discourses and The Prince are my own.
The Santa Fe Institute and the Certosa di Pontignano of the University of Siena have provided unsurpassed environments for research, reflection, and writing. Their staffs have made this research both enjoyable and possible, with particular thanks to Margaret Alexander, Joy Lecuyer, Barbara Kimbell, and Susan Macdonald of the Santa Fe Institute Library. I would also like to thank Nicole Villar Hernandez for assistance with the research, Davide Melcangi and Sai Madhurika Mamunuru, repectively, for creating the figures and the index, and the MacArthur Foundation, the Behavioral Sciences Program of the Santa Fe Institute, and the U.S. National Science Foundation for financial support. Finally, I am indebted to the late George Cowan and Adele Simmons for their abiding confidence in my research trajectory and for their support over the years.
In case you are wondering how such a little book could take so long to write, the short of it is that I had a lot to learn. Here is the story in brief. When I started working on the cultural effects of markets and incentives in the late 1980s, I found myself writing abstract models, which did not allow me to say anything about what had attracted me to the subject: the empirical challenges of designing better policies, institutions, and constitutions. I fell to doing models by default: available data were inadequate to test my hypotheses about people’s ethical, intrinsic, and other noneconomic motivations and how they might be affected by the incentives, legal constraints, and the other instruments of public policy. There was even serious doubt—and not only among economists and biologists—whether such motives were common enough to warrant serious study.
This started to change during the 1990s. The Norms and Preferences Network (just mentioned) gave me the opportunity to conduct a series of behavioral experiments in cultures around the world (with Joseph Henrich and a large group of anthropologists and economists). I also avidly learned from the experiments of others (especially from Ernst Fehr, Simon Gaechter, Armin Falk, Urs Fischbacher and the Zurich school). The empirical outlines of what became Chapters III, IV, and V in this book were beginning to take shape.
Around the turn of the millennium, I took up what seemed to me the obvious next question: if, as the experiments appeared to show, people are more generous and civic minded than either economists or evolutionary biologists assumed, this posed a puzzle. Neither natural selection nor any of the then-prominent models of cultural evolution provided a ready answer to how this could have come about.
I began work on the archaeological, genetic, and ethnographic evidence relevant to the evolution of human social behavior. With Jung-Kyoo Choi, Astrid Hopfensitz, and Herbert Gintis, I developed models and computer simulations providing an account of the cultural and biological evolution of what Gintis and I called (in the title our 2011 book) A Cooperative Species, namely, humanity. The evidence made it clear that the experimental results were not anomalies: there are good genetic and cultural reasons to expect ethical and generous motives to be common in human populations.
It was time, then, to return to the challenge that had started me off and to see what implications this new empirical knowledge of human behavior might hold for the design of policies and institutions that would work well for people given to both self-interest and generosity, both moral action and amorality. And so I went back to work on the project I had set aside two decades earlier.
This short book is the result of that long journey.