"The Ethics of Homo Economicus"
Paul Krugman makes a joke:
In the years that followed, of course, banking became anything but boring. Wheeling and dealing flourished, and pay scales in finance shot up, drawing in many of the nation’s best and brightest young people (O.K., I’m not so sure about the “best” part).
This is reminiscent of a little dispute I was having on a secret off-the-record email list dedicated to plotting Ezra Klein’s march to world domination. I was saying that whatever one thought should be done with large financial institutions as a policy matter, surely we could agree that the executives at these institutions are primarily bad people.
It turns out we couldn’t agree on that. But my argument is pretty simple. These are people primarily motivated in life by greed. Not just by a desire to make some scratch, mind you. These aren’t immigrants who walked through the desert from Mexico in order to earn more money by washing dishes in a San Diego hotel. They’re not 24 year-olds looking for a hefty salary in order to pay off student loans. They’re multi-millionaires who want to earn millions more. It’s possible, of course, that Vikram Pandit really does find being a bank executive to be intrinsically interesting. But a good person, who’s primary passion was the life of a bank executive, would be donating the bulk of his massive compensation package to charity. But that’s not what Pandit’s doing. Rather he, like virtually all executives at major firms, is living a life that’s primarily oriented around an ethic of greed.
Now there’s a decent argument out there, familiar from Adam Smith and the whole tradition of economics, that a world full of greedy people isn’t necessarily quite the disaster that pre-modern ethical thinkers would have thought. This is all well and good. True even. But it’s a sign, I think, of a kind of sickness running through American society that we’ve lost the willingness to just say clearly that ceteris paribus greedy behavior is not virtuous behavior. In the spirit of decency, of course, we recognize that none of us are without sin. It would be crazy to try to condemn everyone who’s ever done anything greedy to the gallows. But the fact still remains that greedy behavior is not admirable behavior and that, as Krugman says, it’s very unlikely that the “best” young people were going into finance. And to say that they’re not necessarily good people need not entail that they’re criminals. Simply the fact that the best people are people who aren’t primarily driven by greed.
I don’t think Barack Obama should orient his policy agenda around that kind of moralizing. But it’s not an observation we should consider shocking to make in civil society.