Assume the worst about people
and you get the worst
(Book Excerpt from 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism, Thing 5)
What they tell you
Adam Smith famously said: ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.’ The market beautifully harnesses the energy of selfish individuals thinking only of themselves (and, at most, their families) to produce social harmony. Communism failed because it denied this human instinct and ran the economy assuming everyone to be selfless, or at least largely altruistic. We have to assume the worst about people (that is, they only think about themselves) if we are to construct a durable economic system.
What they don’t tell you
Self-interest is a most powerful trait in most human beings. However, it’s not our only drive. It is very often not even our primary motivation. Indeed, if the world were full of the self-seeking individuals found in economics textbooks, it would grind to a halt because we would be spending most of our time cheating, trying to catch the cheaters, and punishing the caught. The world works as it does only because people are not the totally self-seeking agents that free-market economics believes them to be. We need to design an economic system that, while acknowledging that people are often selfish, exploits other human motives to the full and gets the best out of people. The likelihood is that, if we assume the worst about people, we will get the worst out of them.
How (not) to run a company
In the mid-1990s, I was attending a conference in Japan on the ‘East Asian growth miracle’, organized by the World Bank. On one side of the debate were people like myself, arguing that government intervention had played a positive role in the East Asian growth story by going against market signals and protecting and subsidizing industries such as automobiles and electronics. On the other side, there were economists supporting the World Bank, who argued that government intervention had at best been an irrelevant sideshow or at worst done more harm than good in East Asia. More importantly, they added, even if it were true that the East Asian miracle owed something to government intervention, that does not mean that policies used by the East Asian countries can be recommended to other countries. Government officials who make policies are (like all of us) self-seeking agents, it was pointed out, more interested in expanding their own power and prestige rather than promoting national interests. They argued that government intervention worked in East Asia only because they had exceptionally selfless and capable bureaucrats for historical reasons (which we need not go into here). Even some of the economists who were supporting an active role for government conceded this point.
Listening to this debate, a distinguished-looking Japanese gentleman in the audience raised his hand. Introducing himself as one of the top managers of Kobe Steel, the then fourth-largest steel producer in Japan, the gentleman chided the economists for misunderstanding the nature of modern bureaucracy, be it in the government or in the private sector. The Kobe Steel manager said (I am, of course, paraphrasing him): ‘I am sorry to say this, but you economists don’t understand how the real world works. I have a Ph.D. in metallurgy and have been working in Kobe Steel for nearly three decades, so I know a thing or two about steelmaking. However, my company is now so large and complex that even I do not understand more than half the things that are going on within it. As for the other managers – with backgrounds in accounting and marketing – they really haven’t much of a clue. Despite this, our board of directors routinely approves the majority of projects submitted by our employees, because we believe that our employees work for the good of the company. If we assumed that everyone is out to promote his own interests and questioned the motivations of our employees all the time, the company would grind to a halt, as we would spend all our time going through proposals that we really don’t understand. You simply cannot run a large bureaucratic organization, be it Kobe Steel or your government, if you assume that everyone is out for himself.’ This is merely an anecdote, but it is a powerful testimony to the limitations of standard economic theory, which assumes that self-interest is the only human motivation that counts. Let me elaborate.
Selfish butchers and bakers
Free-market economics starts from the assumption that all economic agents are selfish, as summed up in Adam Smith’s assessment of the butcher, the brewer, and the baker. The beauty of the market system, they contend, is that it channels what seems to be the worst aspect of human nature – self-seeking, or greed, if you like – into something productive and socially beneficial.
Given their selfish nature, shopkeepers will try to over-charge you, workers will try their best to goof off from work, and professional managers will try to maximize their own salaries and prestige rather than profits, which go to the shareholders rather than themselves. However, the power of the market will put strict limits to, if not completely eliminate, these behaviours: shopkeepers won’t cheat you if they have a competitor around the corner; workers would not dare to slack off if they know they can be easily replaced; hired managers will not be able to fleece the shareholders if they operate in a vibrant stock market, which will ensure that managers who generate lower profits, and thus lower share prices, risk losing their jobs through takeover.
To free-market economists, public officials – politicians and government bureaucrats – pose a unique challenge in this regard. Their pursuit of self-interest cannot be restrained to any meaningful degree because they are not subject to market discipline. Politicians do face some competition from each other, but elections happen so infrequently that their disciplinary effects are limited. Consequently, there is plenty of scope for them to pursue policies that heighten their power and wealth, at the cost of national welfare. When it comes to the career bureaucrats, the scope for self-seeking is even greater. Even if their political masters, the politicians, try to make them implement policies that cater to electoral demands, they can always obfuscate and manipulate the politicians, as was so brilliantly depicted in the BBC comedy series Yes, Minister and its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister. Moreover, unlike the politicians, these career bureaucrats have high job security, if not lifetime tenure, so they can wait out their political masters by simply delaying things. This is the crux of the concerns that the World Bank economists were expressing in the meeting in Japan that I mentioned at the beginning of this Thing.
Therefore, free-market economists recommend, the portion of the economy controlled by politicians and bureaucrats should be minimized. Deregulation and privatization, in this view, are not only economically efficient but also politically sensible in that they minimize the very possibility that public officials can use the state as a vehicle to promote their own self-interests, at the cost of the general public. Some – the so-called ‘New Public Management’ school – go even further and recommend that the management of the government itself should be exposed to greater market forces: a more aggressive use of performance-related pay and short-term contracts for bureaucrats; more frequent contracting-out of government services; a more active exchange of personnel between the public and the private sectors.
We may not be angels, but . . .
The assumption of self-seeking individualism, which is at the foundation of free-market economics, has a lot of resonance with our personal experiences. We have all been cheated by unscrupulous traders, be it the fruit seller who put some rotten plums at the bottom of the paper bag or the yogurt company that vastly exaggerated the health benefits of its products. We know too many corrupt politicians and lazy bureaucrats to believe that all public servants are solely serving the public. Most of us, myself included, have goofed off from work ourselves and some of us have been frustrated by junior colleagues and assistants who find all kinds of excuses not to put in serious work. Moreover, what we read in the news media these days tells us that professional managers, even the supposed champions of shareholder interest such as Jack Welch of GE and Rick Wagoner of GM, have not really been serving the best interests of the shareholders.
This is all true. However, we also have a lot of evidence – not just anecdotes but systematic evidence – showing that self-interest is not the only human motivation that matters even in our economic life. Self-interest, to be sure, is one of the most important, but we have many other motives – honesty, self respect, altruism, love, sympathy, faith, sense of duty, solidarity, loyalty, public-spiritedness, patriotism, and so on – that are sometimes even more important than self-seeking as the driver of our behaviours.
Our earlier example of Kobe Steel shows how successful companies are run on trust and loyalty, rather than suspicion and self-seeking. If you think this is a peculiar example from a country of ‘worker ants’ that suppresses individuality against human nature, pick up any book on business leadership or any autobiography by a successful businessman published in the West and see what they say. Do they say that you have to suspect people and watch them all the time for slacking and cheating? No, they probably talk mostly about how to ‘connect’ with the employees, change the way they see things, inspire them, and promote teamwork among them. Good managers know that people are not tunnel-visioned self-seeking robots. They know that people have ‘good’ sides and ‘bad’ sides and that the secret of good management is in magnifying the former and toning down the latter.
Another good example to illustrate the complexity of human motivation is the practice of ‘work to rule’, where workers slow down output by strictly following the rules that govern their tasks. You may wonder how workers can hurt their employer by working according to the rule. However, this semi-strike method – known also as ‘Italian strike’ (and as ‘sciopero bianco’, or ‘white strike’, by Italians themselves) – is known to reduce output by 30 –50 per cent. This is because not everything can be specified in employment contracts (rules) and therefore all production processes rely heavily on the workers’ goodwill to do extra things that are not required by their contracts or exercise initiatives and take shortcuts in order to expedite things, when the rules are too cumbersome. The motivations behind such non-selfish behaviours by workers are varied – fondness of their jobs, pride in their workmanship, self respect, solidarity with their colleagues, trust in their top managers or loyalty to the company. But the bottom line is that companies, and thus our economy, would grind to a halt if people acted in a totally selfish way, as they are assumed to do in free-market economics.
Not realizing the complex nature of worker motivation, the capitalists of the early mass-production era thought that, by totally depriving workers of discretion over the speed and the intensity of their work and thus their ability to shirk, the conveyor belt would maximize their productivity. However, as those capitalists soon found out, the workers reacted by becoming passive, unthinking and even uncooperative, when they were deprived of their autonomy and dignity. So, starting with the Human Relations School that emerged in the 1930s, which highlighted the need for good communications with, and among, workers, many managerial approaches have emerged that emphasize the complexity of human motivation and suggest ways to bring the best out of workers. The pinnacle of such an approach is the so-called ‘Japanese production system’ (sometimes known as the ‘Toyota production system’), which exploits the goodwill and creativity of the workers by giving them responsibilities and trusting them as moral agents. In the Japanese system, workers are given a considerable degree of control over the production line. They are also encouraged to make suggestions for improving the production process. This approach has enabled Japanese firms to achieve such production efficiency and quality that now many non-Japanese companies are imitating them. By not assuming the worst about their workers, the Japanese companies have got the best out of them.
Moral behavior as an optical illusion?
So, if you look around and think about it, the world seems to be full of moral behaviours that go against the assumptions of free-market economists. When they are confronted with these behaviours, free-market economists often dismiss them as ‘optical illusions’. If people look as if they are behaving morally, they argue, it is only because the observers do not see the hidden rewards and sanctions that they are responding to.
According to this line of reasoning, people always remain self-seekers. If they behave morally, it is not because they believe in the moral code itself but because behaving in that way maximises rewards and minimizes punishments for them personally. For example, if traders refrain from cheating even when there is no legal compulsion or when there are no competitors ready to take away their businesses, it does not mean that they believe in honesty. It is because they know that having a reputation as an honest trader brings in more customers. Or many tourists who behave badly would not do the same at home, not because they suddenly become decent people when they go back home but because they do not have the anonymity of a tourist and therefore are afraid of being criticized or shunned by people they know and care about.
There is some truth in this. There are subtle rewards and sanctions that are not immediately visible and people do respond to them. However, this line of reasoning does not work in the end. The fact is that, even when there are no hidden reward-and-sanction mechanisms at work, many of us behave honestly. For example, why do we – or at least those of us who are good runners – not run away without paying after a taxi ride? The taxi driver cannot really chase us far, as he cannot abandon his car for too long. If you are living in a big city, there is virtually no chance that you will meet the same driver again, so you need not even be afraid of the taxi driver retaliating in some way in the future. Given all this, it is quite remarkable that so few people run away without paying after a taxi ride. To take another example, on a foreign holiday some of you may have come across a garage mechanic or a street vendor who did not cheat you, even when there really was no way for you to reward her by spreading her reputation for honest dealings – particularly difficult when you cannot even spell the Turkish garage’s name or when your Cambodian noodle lady, whose name you cannot remember anyway, may not even trade in the same place every day. More importantly, in a world populated by selfish individuals, the invisible reward/sanction mechanism cannot exist. The problem is that rewarding and punishing others for their behaviors costs time and energy only to the individuals taking the action, while their benefits from improved behavioral standards accrue to everyone. Going back to our examples above, if you, as a taxi driver, want to chase and beat up a runaway customer, you may have to risk getting fined for illegal parking or even having your taxi broken into. But what is the chance of you benefiting from an improved standard of behavior by that passenger, who you may not meet ever again? It would cost you time and energy to spread the good word about that Turkish garage, but why should you do that if you will probably never visit that part of the world ever again? So, as a self-seeking individual, you wait for someone foolish enough to spend his time and energy in administering private justice to wayward taxi passengers or honest out-of-the-way garages, rather than paying the costs yourself. However, if everyone were a self-interested individual like you, everyone would do as you do. As a result, no one would reward and punish others for their good or bad behavior. In other words, those invisible reward/sanction mechanisms that free-market economists say create the optical illusion of morality can exist only because we are not the selfish, amoral agents that those economists say we are.
Morality is not an optical illusion. When people act in a non-selfish way – be it not cheating their customers, working hard despite no one watching them, or resisting bribes as an underpaid public official – many, if not all, of them do so because they genuinely believe that that is the right thing to do. Invisible rewards and sanctions mechanisms do matter, but they cannot explain all – or, in my view, even the majority of – non-selfish behaviours, if only for the simple reason that they would not exist if we were entirely selfish. Contrary to Mrs Thatcher’s assertion that ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families’, human beings have never existed as atomistic selfish agents unbound by any society. We are born into societies with certain moral codes and are socialized into ‘internalizing’ those moral codes.
Of course, all this is not to deny that self-seeking is one of the most important human motivations. However, if everyone were really only out to advance his own interest, the world would have already ground to a halt, as there would be so much cheating in trading and slacking in production. More importantly, if we design our economic system based on such an assumption, the result is likely to be lower, rather than higher, efficiency. If we did that, people would feel that they are not trusted as moral agents and refuse to act in moral ways, making it necessary for us to spend a huge amount of resources monitoring, judging and punishing people. If we assume the worst about people, we will get the worst out of them.