Motivation and capitalism
Mon, 10 Nov 2014
I believe that people, naturally and deep down, want to make the world a better place. I don’t think philosophy (let alone economics) can prove that is the right goal, but I do believe it is a good one (whether justified on evolutionary, religious or other grounds).
Trying to make the world a better place is definitely easier said than done. I believe the biggest challenge is knowledge: knowing how to achieve that goal. Much of what is wrong in the world can be explained by people taking shortcuts, failing to fully consider the impact of their actions.
For example, it is a lot easier to think about the impact of your actions on your company or family or self, than on the whole world. That could be blamed on selfishness, but I prefer to believe that these people, if they did look more broadly, would not take actions that they knew to make the world worse.
I often don’t know how to make the world better, and am often guilty of making simplifying assumptions. While there is a lot of merit in trying to improve my understanding of the world, I believe their is as much to be achieved by acknowledging my assumptions, and where my conclusions are limited (hopefully this comes across in the blog!).
(I’m sure by this point some of you will be thinking, “Isn’t that all obvious?” and some of you be thinking, “how could Guy be so stupid and naive?” - that’s the joy of having a diverse readership!)
What it means for capitalism
My beliefs about people wanting to make the world better may seem completely at odds with capitalism. Surely if people were motivated by global and societal improvement, they wouldn’t be motivated by incentives like money? While I definitely believe it is right to do what makes the world best irrespective of how it changes your personal position, I do think it is right to consider incentives, for three reasons:
- Given the complexity of our world, and the amount of information we would need to consider in order to decide what made the world better, capitalism operates as a remarkably effective signalling mechanism to direct people to what needs doing. It isn’t perfect, and we always be ready to not ‘follow the money’, but there is merit in improving the way it signals what society really values.
- While I believe we are motivated by making the world better, this goal is likely to be overwhelmed if conflicting incentives become too strong. For example, if you can’t feed yourself or your family except through crime, I’m not going to be shocked if that’s the action you take.
- While it is nice to think of everyone just doing the right thing without caring about themselves, I care about how money is distributed from a justice perspective (I believe a more just world tends to be a better one). I don’t have an answer as to what a just distribution would be, but I don’t believe a world in which you are entitled to whatever you can grab in some giant game of Hungry Hippos is a just or a better world.