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Incentives and Motives

In my most-recent column for AIER, I ponder police brutality in today’s America. A slice:

A great deal of the suspicion held by intellectuals and much of the general public about economics springs from my discipline’s focus on incentives rather than on motives. Motives – such as those that arise from racism – seem to be easy to understand; even toddlers classify people, actions, and outcomes as “good” and “bad.” And to react to motives is emotionally gratifying. Each of us loves to praise the virtuous person and to decry the wicked. We are moved, emotionally, both when we behold actions guided by admirable motives as well as when we witness actions fueled by appalling motives.

Incentives, in contrast to motives, are much less emotionally compelling. The grocer who feeds a neighbor because the grocer gets paid to do so doesn’t stir our emotions as does the kindly stranger who feeds a neighbor out of generosity. Likewise, the cop who murders someone stirs our emotions much more mightily if we interpret his actions as springing from racism or some other bad motive rather than from bad incentives.

Yet our own understandable desire to experience emotional satisfaction ought not distract us from the task of rationally examining the incentives in place that affect the actions of police officers.

These incentives today in America are atrocious. An excellent summary of them and their origins is in this new 34-minute-long podcast that the Cato Institute’s Clark Neily did with Juliette Sellgren. Whatever the amount of bigotry in policemen and policewomen – whatever the extent and depth of politicians’, prosecutors’, judges’, and juries’ naivete about race and race relations – these lamentable attitudes are likely not the chief reason for today’s police brutality.

I encourage you to listen to Juliette’s entire discussion with Neily. You’ll learn much – including, especially, just how frighteningly dysfunctional is the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity” for police officers. This doctrine was created by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to Neily, “out of whole cloth.” It effectively shields government officials, including on-duty police officers, from being held legally liable for whatever damages they have caused by violating a person’s civil rights.

This near-complete immunity from civil suits greatly lessens the incentives that would otherwise encourage police officers to act with common decency. When combined with the abominable role of police unions, along with some other defective institutions, police-officers’ incentives to behave decently shrivel to gossamer weightlessness.

The policeman, Derek Chauvin, who murdered George Floyd might well be filled with enough racism to overwhelm a convention hall swarming with KKK Grand Wizards. Or not. Being an on-duty police officer, Chauvin had every reason to believe that whatever injustice or harm that he inflicted on Floyd or anyone else would be ignored by other government officials, including by the courts.

And so Officer Chauvin – immune from the prosocial incentives that normally operate on normal people – might simply have carelessly slipped into his murderous recklessness. Thank goodness this man’s actions were caught on camera and then widely shared.


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