The Profit Motive

We overestimate how widespread our own beliefs and motivations are. It’s only natural, and stems from a human tendency to overvalue the information we can recall, even if we know it to be incomplete.

This effect is well documented in one of my all-time favorite books, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, who often refers to it as “what you see is all there is.” Here’s an example from the book:

Consider the following: “Will Mindik be a good leader? She is intelligent and strong…” An answer quickly came to your mind, and it was yes. You picked the best answer based on the very limited information available, but you jumped the gun. What if the next two adjectives were corrupt and cruel?

Going back to our own beliefs and motivations, it should be fairly obvious that they’re always top-of-mind. And so we often project them onto other people when we imagine the way they think. A person exclusively motivated by money (or fame, or something else) will tend to believe it’s what motivates others as well because that’s all they know from first-hand experience.

And if you agree with that, it follows that a person’s beliefs about others are a reflection of their own state of mind. Someone who says they believe others are motivated by money is probably motivated by money themselves.

Which brings me to politics. We’ve all heard people state their belief that government is inefficient. In fact we often hear politicians say it, despite the fact that their entire job is to govern as best they can. Like a doctor who thinks medicine is a terrible way to cure diseases. Anyway, their argument goes like this: the private sector will always do a better job because there’s competition and they’re incentivized to make as much money as possible.

In other words, they believe that the profit motive leads to better results than the intrinsic motivations of the US government. According to its constitution those are to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

So what does that say about them? Plain and simple, these public servants are telling us that they are personally motivated by money more than by their oath of office.