Given our dependence on a lay ministry and an (almost) all volunteer workforce, the fact that the Church operates at all is something of a miracle. Most of us credit (perhaps self-servingly) the “20” in the “80-20 Rule,” that is, those few individuals in every ward who seem to be shouldering the greatest burdens. As my time in the Church has lengthened, my affinity for the 80-20 Rule has waned. The Rule makes sense only when you count all of those nominal members who have no emotional attachment to the Church, but these people are largely excluded from the benefits generated by the “active” members. This isn’t like national defense, where everyone benefits even if only a few pay. With few exceptions, those who obtain the benefits generated by members of the Church are those who are actively engaged as members.
To be sure, at any given time, some members are creating more benefits than they consume. Some people live their whole lives like that. Most of us, however, experience both plentiful years and lean years, times of service and times of need. Over the course of an individual lifetime, therefore, the Church economy might look very much like the old Communist dogma: “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.” Why does this work (more or less) in the Church context?
I have always assumed that the Church economy depended on charity. (And if I were feeling particularly provincial, I might think that the Church was flourishing because Mormons somehow managed to develop better charity than other people.) In any event, the Church economy sometimes seems separate and distinct from other spheres of human interaction, which tend to be driven by the invisible hand of self-interest rather than the visible hand of God. Recent advances in behavioral psychology, however, suggest that the operation of the Church may be entirely predictable according to a “logic of reciprocity.” Consider the following from Dan Kahan, The Logic of Reciprocity, 102 Michigan Law Review 71 (2003):
The Logic of Collective Action has for decades supplied the logic of public-policy analysis. In this pioneering application of public choice theory, Mancur Olson elegantly punctured the premise–shared by a variety of political theories–that individuals can be expected to act consistently with the interest of the groups to which they belong. Absent externally imposed incentives, wealth-maximizing individuals, he argued, will rarely find it in their interest to contribute to goods that benefit the group as a whole, but rather will “free ride” on the contributions that other group members make. As a result, too few individuals will contribute sufficiently, and the well-being of the group will suffer. These assumptions dominate public-policy analysis and public policy itself across a host of regulatory domains–from tax collection to environmental conservation, from street-level policing to policing of the internet.
But as a wealth of social science evidence now makes clear, Olson’s Logic is false. In collective-action settings, individuals adopt not a materially calculating posture but rather a richer, more emotionally nuanced reciprocal one. When they perceive that others are behaving cooperatively, individuals are moved by honor, altruism, and like dispositions to contribute to public goods even without the inducement of material incentives. When, in contrast, they perceive that others are shirking or otherwise taking advantage of them, individuals are moved by resentment and pride to withhold their own cooperation and even to engage in personally costly forms of retaliation.
This set of dynamics–which I propose to refer to as the “logic of reciprocity”–suggests not only an alternative account of when collective-action problems will arise, but also an alternative program for solving (or simply avoiding) them through law. Whereas the conventional logic of collective action counsels the creation of appropriate external incentives, the logic of reciprocity suggests the importance of promoting trust. Individuals who have faith in the willingness of others to contribute their fair share will voluntarily respond in kind. And spontaneous cooperation of this sort breeds more of the same, as individuals observe others contributing to public goods and are moved to reciprocate. In this self-sustaining atmosphere of trust, reliance on costly incentive schemes becomes less necessary. By the same token, individuals who lack faith in their peers can be expected to resist contributing to public goods, thereby inducing still others to withhold their cooperation as a means of retaliating. In this self-sustaining atmosphere of distrust, even strong (and costly) regulatory incentives are likely to be ineffective in promoting desirable behavior.
Indeed, such incentives may well undermine the conditions of trust necessary to hold collective-action problems at bay. Conspicuous rewards and punishments can imply that others aren’t inclined to cooperate voluntarily, a message that predictably weakens individuals’ commitment to contributing to public goods. In addition, incentive schemes tend to mask the extent to which individuals are inclined to contribute to public goods voluntarily, thereby weakening the tendency of observable cooperation to generate reciprocal cooperation by others. In short, manipulating material incentives may not only be an inefficient regulatory strategy for solving collective-action problems; it may often be a self-defeating one.
If Kahan is right — and I am sympathetic to the argument — the implications are enormous, and not just for public policy. For some of us, embracing this worldview would produce change on a micro level, in the way we interact with our children and other members of the ward. If you are anything like me, you may find that a little bit of knowledge of economic incentives goes a long way, perhaps too far. (Think of the reward and punishment structure of your family.) The implication of the logic of reciprocity is that our relationships should not be governed (only? primarily?) by carrots and sticks, but by love. But I suppose we already knew that.