The Reasoned Review

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Morality of Default

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Mortgage Calculator has an excellent interview with financial blogger Steve Waldman which I suggest you all read.


I think that the moral thing for most borrowers to do, under present circumstances, is to default on loans when it is in their financial interest to do so.

But it’s crucial to remember that “what is moral” is something we collectively decide, and not without constraints. A social order that routinely demands heroic sacrifice of people in the name of virtue will fail. Clever hypocrites will be rewarded while naive saints pay, and the overall tenor of society will not be virtuous. The most we can demand of fuzzy constructs like morality and social norms is what Arnold Kling calls “soft rule utilitarianism”, under which people accept modest personal costs on the theory that if everybody does so, we’ll all better off. But emphasis on the word “modest”, and expectations of reciprocity. Economic and legal scaffolding has to sit beneath informal social constraints so that in general it makes sense to be good. It is like the relationship between flesh and bone: You could not build anything as beautiful as a smile out of bone, but the smile will not survive if the jaw beneath is fractured and misshapen. We regulate the “bone structure” of our society explicitly via legal arrangements, and more subtly, via social and reputational incentives. There’s a kind of hygiene we have to attend to, in order to ensure that doing well and being good are not terribly inconsistent. Over the past few decades we’ve failed to attend to that hygiene, in large part I think because we let simplistic economic ideas persuade us that we didn’t have to, and that the pursuit of wealth yields virtue automatically and dirty is the new clean.

Much of my thinking on economic and social issues comes back to T.S. Elliot’s proposition, “It is impossible to design a system so perfect that no one needs to be good.” Once upon a time, I chose to disagree. I thought it was the challenge of our day, and the grand project of modern economics, to build a system in which people pursuing their own self-interest would provide all social goods, in which the benevolent invisible hand would rule all and we’d have no need to rely upon ideas as shifty and manipulable as “virtue”. I have done a full 180 on this question. Economic self-interest and formal legal frameworks are simply insufficient to regulate a decent society. Elliot was right.


Written by pavanvan

January 24, 2010 at 6:23 pm

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