Monday, March 17

Gary Becker on moral hazard

Hardly a day goes by during this housing crisis that the media does not report on families in foreclosure proceedings, or in arrears in repayment on mortgages that had close to zero down payment requirements and low “teaser “ interest rates. The many excuses offered by some home owners for their plight, and also eagerly by the authors of these human interest stories, is that the borrowers did not understand that these introductory interest rates might rise a lot after a few years, or that they would have negative equity in their homes if housing prices stopped rising and began to fall. An obvious alternative explanation for their behavior is that they gambled that the good times would continue indefinitely.

This type of response to failed decisions is not unique to the present housing crisis, but is part of a strong trend toward shifting responsibility to others...

Successful attempts to shift the responsibility for bad decisions toward others and to society more generally create a "moral hazard" in behavior. If individuals are not held accountable for decisions and actions that harm themselves or others, they have less incentive to act responsibly in the first place since they will escape some or all of the bad consequences of their actions. It does not matter greatly whether this moral hazard resulted from the shifting of blame for unsuccessful actions to the "small print" in a contract, to an abused childhood, to a mental state, or to many other efforts to shift responsibility away from oneself.

An important foundation of the philosophy behind the arguments for private enterprise, free economies, and free societies more generally, is that these societies rely on and require individual decision-making and responsibility. This philosophy not only emphasizes the moral hazard reasons to require individual responsibility, but also "the use it or lose it principle", a colloquial expression indicating that various mental and physical capacities wear down and erode if they are not used on a regular basis. This principle implies that people who are accustomed to having other persons or governments make their decisions for them lose the ability to make good decisions for themselves. Free societies lead to better decision-making partly because men and women accumulate more experience at making decisions that affect their well-being and that of others.

Of course, I recognize that not all individuals are equally capable of making decisions in their own interests...

Still, greater practice in making decisions, and greater responsibility for the consequences of one's decisions, usually significantly improves decision-making by the vast majority of adults, regardless of limitations in their education and cognition. Moreover, many of the decisions and actions that do not work out well are not due to low education, inability to understand what is going on, or biased and incorrect information.

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