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The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens (Castle Lectures Series) Hardcover – May 24, 2016
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But it was much more complicated than that. The incentives did not only erode people's effort level but also their morals: SOME people stopped working out of the only right motives of the engineer ("willing to achieve something cool and useful and something of high quality"). Somehow incentives eroded the "right" motives even in cases when the sums achieved were not huge at all.
Samuel Bowles' book discusses the problem why sometimes incentives crowd-out (erode) the social (altruistic, reciprocal etc.) preferences of people when they are acting in the society and the companies. But he also discusses how social and economic incentives in some cases can work in synergy. When economic incentives do not act alone but are combind with a message (e.g. "it is wrong to do A and that's why we will put a monetary penalty for breaking the rule"), the incentives sometimes work together fine. So in the end this an optimistic book.
The book is kind of conclusion of Bowles' studies during his whole life. (Bowles is a left-wing economist - I am right-wing but I trust on him for reasons which kind of become evident reading his not so politically correct writings.)
This is not only a book describing the reality as it is but a book which wants to give advice to the Legislator. Bowles sees the task of the Legistlator much in an Aristotelian sense. It is not about creating a society where knaves are through incentives put to work in a manner that contributes to common good. It is also about developing incentives and institutions in a way which creates moral citizens with social preferences - or at least make the rules so, that existing social preferences do not crowd out and that people with social preferences are able to have a positive impact on the society and e.g. through peer punishment affect even how the other people without social preferences act.
Bowles is an unusually expansive thinker among economists, both in terms of where his thinking is on the spectrum of views and in his awareness of other disciplines -- political science, history, biology, sociology. Bowles was multi- and inter-disciplinary before it became fashionable. (Do you get the sense I'm a fan?) In the past, I would have characterized him as leftist/progressive. With Herbert Gintis and others, he was one of the architects of UMass Amherst's deeply under-appreciated, progressive economics department. I'm not sure where he might be placed now. And that's good. He challenges everyone, as far as I can tell.
Bowles moves easily from technical, academic treatments of his subjects (see "A Cooperative Species", "Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution", or "The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution") to ones easily understood by almost any reader. (I have some comfort with mathematics, for example, but have no learning in mathematical economics beyond what I've managed to cobble together for myself.)
"The Moral Economy" is quite accessible to readers not versed in technical economics, but it does not condescend or over-simplify (a problem with most economic writing directed at general audiences). Readers with no awareness of contemporary economics -- especially the role game theory and behavioral sciences have played in recent years -- may find the book less enjoyable or rewarding. But it is still very readable.
Most important, Bowles is delving into a subject which I think is beginning to get more (and needed) attention in the long aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. After seeing critical flaws in conventional economics laid bare in the crisis (and plenty of economists and others still effectively deny that there are problems), how do we apply new findings in the social sciences to do advance beyond mere critiques of old approaches? The answer, if I understand Bowles and others correctly, is that we need a better understanding of the economic actors -- us -- an understanding that doesn't omit or mis-characterize key features of human behavior (like altruism). We need to apply an understanding of essentially moral humans.
All my take, all possibly mistaken. Still a very interesting read.
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It focuses on two competing models: the standard economics model in which people act in purely self-interested...Read more