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Technology and the market for hypocrisy

10 de Agosto 2020 Columnas

No one likes hypocrisy. But if that is so, why do we observe so much of it? The answer is that there is a market for hypocrisy: There are willing producers and willing consumers; and the cost of transacting among them has fallen to nearly zero.

Let us be clear about what we mean by hypocrisy. It is a false claim about one’s own moral beliefs, which can be detected by observing what a person does, rather than what he says. A prime example is the recent “Millionaires for Humanity” letter, which to date has garnered the signatures of 97 wealthy individuals, including heirs to the Disney and Pritzker fortunes. It leads with vanity: “As Covid-19 strikes the world, millionaires like us have a critical role to play in healing our world.” It elides responsibility: “The problems caused by, and revealed by, Covid-19 can’t be solved with charity, no matter how generous.” It then shifts the burden for action: “Government leaders must take the responsibility for raising the funds we need and spending them fairly.” And it ends with a demand that government make the signatories behave righteously: “So please. Tax us. Tax us. Tax us. It is the right choice. It is the only choice.”

A simple fact suggests that these statements should not be taken at face value. There is nothing to stop the letter’s signatories from imposing a tax on themselves by sending checks to the U.S. Treasury’s “Gifts to the United States” account — a fund that’s existed since 1843, and whose postal address is listed on the Treasury’s website. Indeed, what better way to spur other millionaires to help heal the world, or to forge a broad-based movement to raise taxes on the wealthy, than to lead by example?

That there are ready suppliers of hypocrisy is hardly surprising. Fame, vanity and power are strong motivators, especially if they can be achieved through words rather than deeds.

That there are ready consumers of hypocrisy, willing to uncritically accept, repeat and defend those false claims does, however, require explanation. One should never underestimate the thrill that comes from being righteous. Anger is intoxicating, especially when it can be covered with a mask of virtue. Nevertheless, one should also not underestimate the instinctual human drive to minimize conflict and find harmony. When someone in a position of authority speaks, people tend to listen — and find comfort in conformity.

It used to be that newspapers, television and radio served as intermediaries in the market for hypocrisy, weeding out obvious, self-serving falsehoods. One need not posit that there was a time before the fall from grace when journalists and editors were high-minded guardians of the truth. Rather, the state of technology required hypocrisy to compete for space with advertising and actual news; there were only so many column inches in a newspaper, and only so much radio or TV programming time. The local nature of the media business also meant that it had to cater to the broad tastes in its local community or risk losing a significant share of a limited market. And news organizations employed large numbers of highly-skilled employees. High costs had to be spread over a small market: Newspapers were bulky and heavy; radio and television signals were mostly local.

The revolution in information technology removed those cost, space and market size constraints. Digital distribution is virtually free. The internet is not physically bounded. The geographic scope facing a media organization is the entire world. At the same time, the production cost of hypocrisy has fallen faster than the cost of actual news content, because gathering and checking facts, and putting them into a coherent narrative, remains labor and skill intensive.

Business models have adjusted. Machine learning algorithms match content with individual preferences and find the statements that gain the most clicks from consumers. The explosion of hypocrisy is a property of a general trend that has changed the media business.

The implication is straightforward: The quantity of hypocritical statements in the market today is limited only by the willingness of suppliers to spend time producing them and the willingness of consumers to pay attention. Unless the cost of transacting among the two groups can be raised, by everyone else expressing amused puzzlement about the lack of fit between moral claims and personal actions, the market will continue to thrive.

Alexander Galetovic is a senior fellow at the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Santiago, Chile, and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Stephen Haber is a professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Publicado en The Hill.

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