Arnold Kling  

Ethics as Infrastructure

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Poverty and Income Distributio... European Scientists and Americ...

Will Wilkinson argues that ethics are an important part of economic infrastructure.


At bottom of both well-functioning markets and states are norms of behavior that dispose people to cooperate, to keep agreements, and to recognize and respect claims to property and a certain degree of personal autonomy. These norms are the ultimate public goods, and constitute the moral infrastructure of society. The moral infrastructure, and the system of norms it comprises, is largely a consequence of systems of widely shared belief. To this extent, ideology is infrastructure. A community that shares the belief that property is morally illegitimate, that profit is odious, that the state is primarily a mechanism for conferring special benefits on whatever tribe can dominate it, or that some groups but not others have legitimate claims to peace and prosperity cannot sustain a moral infrastructure -- in which case other questions about public goods are moot.

A moral infrastructure is something neither Bechtel nor the CPA has the power to provide. Canals and constitutions are all for naught if Iraqis don't develop norms that enable the emergence of a complex market and the benign administration of the state. If -- whether because of religious conviction, political ideology, tribal affiliation or whatever -- they don't believe these are norms worth having, then they won't have them. And despite our best intentions, our efforts there will fail.


I agree with this view--see What Causes Prosperity? A concern I have about Iraq and other failed states is that they lack a work ethic. If people see earning a living through work as inferior to kleptocracy or feudal mastery, then it is hard to see a vibrant market economy developing.

For Discussion. Raghuram Rajan, now chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, has written that government must achieve a happy medium between being too strong to allow the private sector to operate and too weak to protect property rights. Can government solve the problems that Wilkinson describes?


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Robert Monical writes:

I suspect that the lack of a work ethic is less the issue than a sense that the economic system is "unfair".

IMHO corruption destroys initiative.

Eric Krieg writes:

I believe that there is no such thing as "ethics", in the professional sense. You are either a moral person or you are not, and I don't see how you can be "ethical" as a professional if you are not moral in every aspect of your life (moral in the Judeo-Christian sense).

The Iraqis are going to have trouble simply because they have been brutalized for so long. They lived in a totalitarian society where life was cheap. It will take some time to adjust, more than likely. But other formerly totalitarian societies have adjusted: Russia and China leap to mind.

Iraq is different in that totalitarianism was ended there by an outside force. Who knows how that will change the speed of adjustment. I hope that the Iraqi police and army are learning something from their American trainers. I hope that it sticks.

Burt writes:

The problem with the rest of the world is that it is not Protestant (see Weber); without evangelism and conversion capitalism cannot spread. That is why faith-based initiatives by Bush are necessary to civilise places outside America. Basically, we need to fund more missionaries.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

I would sharply contest that Iraq lacks a 'Work Ethic'. It is first one of the most advanced and educated of all Islamic societies. One of the greatest Angers of the Iraqi population towards the Americans comes in the form of a 30% overall enjoined Unemployment rate caused by American Occupation interference in the Iraqi economy. American Occupation refusal to contract with Iraqi business and employ Iraqi labor in rebuilding the nation remains the real source of anger in Iraqi society against Americans. A simple expenditure of $1 Billion paid to Iraqi labor directly would clean the streets of rubble, provide a tenth of Iraqi families with a source of Income, and bring back forty percent of the Iraqi economy. lgl

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