Surprising myself, I write here about the murder of George Floyd.
My surprise springs from my long-held belief that I, a professional economist who now specializes in studying trade and trade policy, likely have nothing useful to add to public discussions about race relations and police misconduct. It’s not that I have no opinions about these matters. I do indeed have opinions, and most are strong. Rather, I sense that any worthwhile opinions that I have about such matters are typically better expressed by people who, while sharing my opinions, are better informed than I am of relevant context and details.
But pondering the many protests as well as the riots (the latter are categorically distinct from the former) of the past several days increasingly reveals that a central and crucial economic insight is too-little expressed and heard – or, what is the same thing, warrants repeated emphasis. And so I express this insight here.
We Should Have Stronger Incentives to Account for the Role of Incentives
Among the most frequently heard declarations about today’s protests is that they are “against hatred” or “against racism.” Opposition to racial bigotry is indeed noble. Decent people should speak out against it – to protest it – in no uncertain terms. Yet changing people’s belief systems and prejudices is a long-term process. Such change, although highly desirable, doesn’t happen overnight. And so if a vital goal is, as it ought to be, to reduce police brutality as quickly as possible by as much as possible, a more promising approach than protesting racism is to investigate and, if appropriate, to change the incentives that police officers confront.
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.
Bad Incentives are Indeed at Work
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.
The human spirit does not naturally regard evil acts as banal. We hate evil outcomes, and we want not only to hate the persons whose actions result in heinous outcomes, we also want our hate to be justified. And any perpetrator of evil is more worthy of being hated if he or she is motivated by racism or some other evil than if he or she is merely responding to incentives. We therefore discount the importance of incentives.
Yet we ignore the reality and role of incentives at our peril. By overlooking incentives, we overlook genuine opportunities to reduce immediately the likelihood of future horrible outcomes. Ironically, by overlooking incentives we also encourage the creation and maintenance of what appears to be systemic racism. If we do little more than self-satisfyingly shout about the horrors of hatred, rail against racism, and march against small-mindedness – if we don’t do the harder work of investigating the incentives in play – we ourselves, as is popularly said, “are part of the problem.”
Society does improve as people’s attitudes and motives improve. By all means let us never stop talking in ways that encourage tolerance, mutual respect, and civility for all regardless of such superficial phenomena as skin color and place of birth. But let us also, as mature adults, come to see more clearly the vital and ever-present importance of the economist’s insistence both that incentives matter and that (as I think I first heard economist David Henderson say) “intentions are not results.”
Preaching and protesting have their place. But so, too, does the economic way of thinking.