In today’s New York Times David Brooks tackles the pervasive but wrong-headed ideology of Hobbes, Mandeville, and Ayn Rand that posits that rational self-interest is the source of all that is good in the economy and society.
It isn’t that self-interest is bad, but self-interest functions alongside other motives that at time are stronger. Brooks notes:
“Classical economics adopts a model that says people are primarily driven by material self-interest. Political science assumes that people are driven to maximize their power.
“But this worldview is clearly wrong. In real life, the push of selfishness is matched by the pull of empathy and altruism. This is not Hallmark card sentimentalism but scientific fact: As babies our neural connections are built by love and care. We have evolved to be really good at cooperation and empathy. We are strongly motivated to teach and help others.”
He goes on to cite some of the famous experiments that demonstrate “motivational crowding out”—that is, when civic-minded norms become corrupted by selfish individualism. When a day care center imposes a monetary fee on late parents, tardiness rises. When the Boston police department changes unlimited sick days to a limited number per year, sick outages increase. Standard economics cannot explain such counter-intuitive results using rational expectations alone.
“To simplify, there are two lenses people can use to see any situation: the economic lens or the moral lens. When you introduce a financial incentive you prompt people to see their situation through an economic lens. Instead of following their natural bias toward reciprocity, service and cooperation, you encourage people to do a selfish cost-benefit calculation. They begin to ask, ‘What’s in this for me?’”
All that is good, but Brooks is not quite as helpful as he could be. First, he cites Adam Smith for allegedly promoting the self-individual view. He should know better. Second, he ascribes all of this prosocial behavior to altruism. In Smith’s view of things, however, a strong justification for such prosocial actions arise from feelings about justice and injustice.