Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hume The Inimitable

Do you know Hume's argument for an Established Church? It is quoted in Smith's Wealth of Nations and it is too good not to share. It is Hume at his most impish.

Hume notes that diligence on the part of a worker of any sort depends on, as we would now say, his pay varying with performance. A flat wage not tied to performance leads to an “indolent” worker. An established religion where the clergy are paid a fixed salary by the state will then produce an indolent clergy. And this, for Hume, is a good reason for state establishment, since “this interested diligence of the clergy is what every wise legislator will study to prevent”!

 The result of free competition among clergy whose pay depends on the extent and devotion of their congregation, by contrast, will be that:“each ghostly practitioner, in order to render himself more precious and sacred in the eyes of retainers, will inspire them with the most violent abhorrence of all other regard will be paid to truth, morals or decency in the doctrines cultivated. Every tenet will be adopted that best suits the disorderly affections of the human frame. Customers will be drawn to each conventicle
by new industry and address in practicing on the passions and credulity of the populace.”


JW Mason said...

I dont know: The position as given seems entirely reasonable to me. There are lots of jobs -- including the most important ones -- where incentives definitely do not work. These are jobs where rules-based behavior is important but not straightforward, where honesty is at a premium, where we want people to be somewhat indifferent to immediate outcomes, where outcomes are important but hard to measure. "Disinterested" is Hume's word and it describes exactly the attitude we want judges, scientists, parents, teachers, tc. to adopt.

You aren't paid by results, are you, Kevin?

Of course not. Despite the best efforts of folks like the Board of Visitors at the UNiversity of Virginia, we continue to understand that academic inquiry works best precisely when academics aren't forced to respond to incentives to maximize their popularity. A little status-seeking is fine, even helpful, but protecting the positions of those who ignore status is even more important. It seems to me that Hume's argument for state religion is basically the same, with a few words changed, as the argument you or I would use for tenure and academic freedom generally.

I'll take your word for it he was joking. But it's hard not to suspect, maybe the joke is not what you think it is?

JW Mason said...

I note that the alternative to incentive-compatible preaching that Hume proposes is "regard ... to truth, morals or decency." Sounds like he was wisely pointing out the advantages of intrinsic motivations over incentives.

Could it be that you've drunk a little too much of the microeconomics kool aid to get Hume's point?

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Upon reading this article, I realized that there are people who would simply used their position to take advantage others.

kevin quinn said...

JW: What I think is interesting here is that Hume would have the State be involved in limiting the spread of a certain type of religion. Smith quotes him to disagree with him about the means: he argues that free competition between religions would lead to each religion becoming more "rational." But both have the same goal, which is to decrease the prevalence of "enthusiasm and superstition" and neither had any scruples about using state policy to do so. In this respect, the Scottish enlightenment, pace Hayek and Himmelfarb, were in perfect agreement with the French. "Ecrasez l'infame!"

kevin quinn said...

JW: I don't think I responded as well as I could have. I agree with you that doing certain kinds of jobs well will often require that we do not give high-powered incentives - where, as you say, the job has many dimensions, only some of which can be picked up by a measure of performance. But I read Hume as saying that this is one job he doesn't want done well. So whatever is necessary to produce indolence in the performance of this particular job he would be in favor of.

Seth said...

Hume nailed it. The established Church of England is moribund, while Christ-branded franchise operations of every description are thriving in the U.S.

The profit motive works in the religion business like any other.

Shag from Brookline said...

Did competition between religions lead to the Crusades? What is the evidence that such competition serves humanity well? Or is that not what religions serve?