15 Pages Posted: 23 May 2018
Date Written: January 15, 2018
The Oscar-winning 1990 movie Dances With Wolves tells the story of Lieutenant John Dunbar, a Union officer who adopts a Sioux identity and name. The New York Times explained the movie’s appeal: “[A]n appealing hybrid, a western without guilt,” it enabled viewers to “enjoy a rousing old adventure and still feel they can save the planet.” A (white) person watching the movie could feel a virtuous identification with the Indians, and imagine that had he existed at the time, he too would have fought the good fight, and espoused pro-Indian laws and policies without having to do anything perilous, or really, anything at all.
This article, in a symposium issue on Altruism, Community and Markets, labels this phenomenon “cheap sentiment.” Cheap sentiment is like cognitive dissonance and various forms of hypocrisy, but focuses on societal, external effects. A person gets the benefit of holding a particular ‘virtuous’ belief without incurring the cost; if the person acts, or presses for action to be taken, in furtherance of the belief, the cost may even be externalized—society bears the cost. Consider a person who objects to payment for organs as ‘commercializing what should be given freely’ when neither she nor anyone close to her is in need of organs. The same person, if she or a loved one needed organs, might (or might not) have a different view. Consider also people who object to low wages and unsafe working conditions in emerging economies, but who nevertheless buy the resultant products—products whose (low) prices reflect how little was spent on labor and safer working conditions. Other examples discussed include differential pricing and NIMBY.
The article argues that cheap sentiment adversely affects policy-making, especially insofar as it short-circuits (and sometimes even demonizes) due consideration of market-oriented solutions. My hope is that by characterizing the phenomenon of cheap sentiment as a pathology, and accommodation to it as problematic and not inevitable, my framing can serve as a needed counterweight, enabling such solutions to be given due consideration.
Keywords: cognitive dissonance, behavioral law and economics, altruism
JEL Classification: K32, A13, Z13
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation