The Corner

Preachers, Politicians and Professors vs. CEOs

If you are in the mood for both a chuckle and an interesting argument, the always delightful Prof. Dwight Lee of Southern Methodist University supplies them with a recent essay in The Independent Review. His thesis is that, on average, business people are more honest than preachers, politicians, or professors. As an economist, Lee explains the reasons why through careful analysis of the costs and benefits of choosing dishonesty as a standard operating procedure:

. . . As long as people continue to embrace beliefs out of comfort or convenience, opportunities will exist for someone to profit by making claims that are intentionally misleading — that is, by acting dishonestly. Such dishonesty will arise in business, religion, politics, and academics, as some practitioners in these areas yield to the temptation to take advantage of the possible profits.

It turns out that, because most businesses are profitable only by earning the patronage of returning customers, they have stronger incentives to be truthful than do preachers (“no one can ‘test drive’ a preacher’s most important promise,” Lee observes), politicians (for whom elections are sporadic and often predetermined by gerrymandering and other devices), or professors (whose customers, the students, “often do not care much about the honesty of the professors’ claims”).

In other words, human beings are naturally tempted towards credulity and dishonesty. Among the various social institutions devised to help us resist the temptation, free enterprise is the best bet.


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