Thursday, October 27, 2005

Innate Honesty

Innate Honesty

When my computer crashed more than a month ago, I consumed my free hours reading books and watching programs on TV and cable. One of the best books I read was Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt. As I mentioned in my previous entry, it is a book by a rogue economist who explores the hidden side of everything. There was even a warning by the author of the Tipping Point and Blink, Malcolm Caldwell: “Prepare to be dazzled.” And yes I was really dazzled.

Based on the data he presented, schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have one thing in common and that they all cheat. Of course it would be very difficult to accept especially if you are also a teacher like me. But then, the writer presented his explanation so intelligently that you’ll be convinced of his thinking what with his presentation and analyses of the data on the Chicago Public Schools. The analyses on Chicago cheating resulted in the firing of the cheating teachers.

Levitt’s question that if sumo wrestlers, school teachers and day-care parents all cheat and so are we to assume that mankind is innately and universally corrupt? And how corrupt? His answers impressed me. Imagine, Mr. Levitt explained that the answers lie in bagels and that of a man named Paul Feldman.

Paul Feldman started his business, honor-system commerce, by soliciting customers early in the morning; he would deliver some bagels and a cash basket to a company’s snack room; he would return before lunch to pick up the money and the leftovers. His business worked for within a few years, he was delivering 4,800 bagels a week to 140 companies and earning as much as he had ever made as a research analyst.

Without meaning, Mr. Feldman designed an economic experiment. By measuring the money collected against the bagels taken, he found it possible to tell, down to the penny, just how honest his customers were. Though he expected a 95 percent payment rate when he started his business, in the summer of 2001 the payment rate was 87 percent. This data therefore revealed that though a lot of people steal from Mr. Feldman, there is a vast majority, 87 percent, though no one is watching over them, do not.

The outcome of Feldman’s experiment may have not surprised Adam Smith, as reasoned by Levitt. Why so? Because the theme of Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was the innate honesty of mankind. “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interests him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”

The great philosopher Socrates also argued that people are generally good even without enforcement.

Ans so with Socrates, Adam Smith and now Paul Feldman, I am with them also. I do believe that man has innate honesty. How about you?

NOTE: if you can’t get hold of the book Freakonomics, you can visit

No comments: