03 August 2010

Give greed a chance

Tyler Cowen asks:
How many [books on morality and markets] take seriously the notion that our moral intuitions can be badly misguided for judging the operation of an impersonal market economy in the modern world? Not so many, though all seem to think they do. Source
I sometimes am asked how Social Policy Bonds, which envisage self-interest as playing a still bigger role in our economy, can be reconciled with morality and ethics? I have two answers. One, that morality is at least as much a matter of outcomes as about the means of reaching them. Our private sector, whose motivation is profits (or sales, market share, or revenue), generates much of the tax revenue with which we help the disadvantaged and supply public goods and services. It also contributes much in the way of positive non-market impacts: through employment it alleviates poverty and crime, etc. In short, a system based (apparently) on greed, as regulated by government, enables us to raise the wellbeing of all, especially the disadvantaged: greed can be good.

My other answer is that what is labelled as self-interest and is disdained for that reason can be no more than someone going to work for money, to support him/herself and his/her family. Under a Social Policy Bond regime, investors in the bonds would make capital gains if they help achieve society's targeted goals. That doesn't make them profiteers or worthy of condemnation. It makes them entrepreneurs willing to take a risk so that they can pay themselves and people who work for them (at a lower risk) salaries. Competition for the bonds would bid away excess profits anyway. Largely for reasons of history and (I think) too-little-examined moral disdain for self-interest, we've been reluctant to channel self-interest into the solution of social problems. Those who are charged with solving them are rarely rewarded in ways that correlate with their success in doing so. Social Policy Bonds are my suggested way of channeling the incentives and efficiencies of the market into the achievement of social goals, including those, such as world peace and the elimination of poverty, that most would agree are morally uplifting. My header says it all.

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