Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Selfish Masters, Selfless Servants

Via Mike the Mad Biologist, a Confucian parable for the financial crisis:
Mencius replied, "Why must your Majesty use that word 'profit?' What I am provided with, are counsels to benevolence and righteousness, and these are my only topics.
"If your Majesty say, 'What is to be done to profit my kingdom?' the great officers will say, 'What is to be done to profit our families?' and the inferior officers and the common people will say, 'What is to be done to profit our persons?' Superiors and inferiors will try to snatch this profit the one from the other, and the kingdom will be endangered....
Indeed, there are deep contradictions hidden in that word "profit." Reminds me of a classic article on corporate governance, Bruce Greenwood's Enronitis: Why Good Corporations Go Bad.
The Enron problem is ... the predictable result of too strong of a share-centered view of the public corporation... Corporate law demands that managers simultaneously be selfless servants and selfish masters. On the one hand, it directs managers to be faithful agents, setting aside their own interests entirely in order to act only on behalf of their principals, the shares. On the other hand, in the service of this extreme altruism, they must ruthlessly exploit everyone around them, projecting on to the shares an extreme selfishness that takes no account of any interests but the shares themselves. Having maximally exploited their fellow human corporate participants, managers are then expected to selflessly hand over their gains...

Altruism and rationally self-interested exploitation are extreme and radically opposed positions, psychologically and politically. ... For managers, one easy resolution of these tensions is a simple, cynical selfishness in which managers see themselves as entitled, and perhaps even required, to exploit shareholders as ruthlessly as they understand the law to require them to exploit everyone else. ...

Internally, the share-centered paradigm is just as self-destructive. Corporations succeed because they are not markets and do not follow market norms of behavior. Rather, they operate under fiduciary norms as a matter of law and team norms as a matter of sociology. However, the share-centered paradigm of corporate law teaches managers to treat employees as outsiders and tools to corporate ends with no intrinsic value. Just as managers are unlikely to learn simultaneously to be selfish maximizers and selfless altruists, they are unlikely to be simultaneously cooperative team players and self-interested defectors. Thus, the share-centered view undermines the prerequisite to operating the firm in the interests of shareholders. ...

Managers constructing the firm as a tool to the end of share value maximization treat the people with whom they work as means, not ends. ...they learn as part of their ordinary life to break ordinary social solidarity. Learning to exploit ruthlessly is surprisingly difficult. ... But cynicism can be learned, and managers subjected to the powerful incentives of the share value maximization principle do eventually learn it. ... This training, however, surely creates cynics, not faithful agents. ... A manager whose lived experience is a pretense of selflessness (with respect to employees, customers and business partners) covering real disinterested exploitation (on behalf of shares) is unlikely to suddenly see himself as “in a position in which thought of self was to be renounced, however hard the abnegation” and voluntarily hand over these hard-won gains of competitive practice to his principal. If you can properly lie to your subordinates, why not lie to your superior as well? ... In the end, the cynicism of the share value maximization view must eat itself alive.
Something like Enronitis was clearly involved in the financial crisis. Indeed, some of the most famous controversies around the crisis hinge precisely on disputes about whether a transaction was between the parties linked by a fiduciary duty, or was an arm's-length one where predatory behavior was expected, and even a moral duty. You can get yourself out of legal trouble, as Goldman has in the case of the Paulson trade, by establishing that you were on the war-of-all-against-all side of the line; but obviously, a system where predatory and trust-based relationships are expected to exist side by side, or even to overlap, is not likely to be a sustainable one. (Of course if the goal of our rentier elite is simply to stripmine the postwar social compromise, then sustainability is moot.) Friedman's idea that a corporation's duty is "to make as much money as possible while con­forming to the basic rules of the society" isn't coherent psychologically or logically, since it demands that management regard certain norms as absolutely binding and others as absolutely non-binding, without any reliable way of saying which is which.

Greenwood is talking about the "corporation as polis." But the same point applies to the polis as polis.

It may not be the benevolence that makes the butcher, baker or brewer hand over the beef, bread or beer. But it is benevolence-- or at least something other than self-interest -- that ensures that it's not full of E. coli. And if you say, well, it's just their self-interest in avoiding the penalties of the law, that begs the question of why the authorities enforce the law. Or as Hume famously observed,
as FORCE is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. The soldan of EGYPT, or the emperor of ROME, might drive his harmless subjects, like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination: But he must, at least, have led his mamalukes, or prætorian bands, like men, by their opinion.
Boris Groys develops a similar line of thought in The Communist Postscript:
The theory of Marxism-Lenisnism is ambivalent in its understanding of language, as it is in most matters. On the one hand, everyone who knows this theory has learnt that the dominant language is always the language of the dominant classes. On the other hand, they have learnt too that an idea that has gripped the masses becomes a material force, and that on this basis Marxism itself is (or will be) victorious because it is correct.
This is a particular instance of Groys' broader argument about the inherent power of rational speech:
The listener or reader of an evident statement can of course willfully decide to contradict the  compelling effect of this statement... But someone who adopts such a counter-evident position does not really believe it himself. Those who do not accept what is logically evident become internally divided, and this division weakens them in comparison to those who accept and affirm the evidence. The acceptance of logical evidence makes one stronger; to reject it, conversely, makes one weaker.
Similarly, the decisionmaker who acts on norms consistently is stronger, in the long run, than the Enronitic manager whose honest service to "shareholder value" requires dishonest, strictly instrumental treatment of workers, customers, regulators, and the rest of humanity.

All of which is another way of saying that, despite the fantasies of libertarians, and cynics, that it's self-interest all the way down, we can't dispense with intrinsic motivation, analytically or in practice.

UPDATE: Added Groys quote. Had intended to include it in the original post, but I'd lent the book to someone...


  1. Where's your rss?

  2. Good question. I'm technologically hopeless, but I'll try to add it.