don’t blame incentives

Psychology which explains everything
explains nothing
and we are still in doubt.

—Marianne Moore, Marriage

I was tempted to title this post “against incentives”. But really my objection isn’t to “incentives” per se. To be “against incentives” makes about as much sense as being “against breathing” or “against food” or “against gravity”. What I’m against is the mindless talk about “incentives” which is now ubiquitous. “Incentives” explain all social, economic, and political behavior — or are the only explanation that is needed. And a reference to “incentives” is all that is required to define the purpose and the goals of public policy. The problems that public policy are concealed by the all-purpose veil of “good incentives”. The causes of those problems remain unidentified and unaddressed once it is “understood” that they are the result of “bad incentives”. Human agency itself is tossed away, as, oddly enough, is the very notion of freedom. All behavior becomes nothing more than an unthinking, involuntary response to incentives. No one chooses how they behave. They just respond to incentives. Some people choose well. Many poorly. The difference between “good choosers” and “bad chooser” simply reflects their ability to compute the incentives.