John — As an econ prof, I have spent much of my career fighting against the caricature of economics that you present when you write, “ it is possible to interpret such phenomena in economic terms, and to interpret those behaviors as self-serving.”

Maybe the economics profession is itself partly to blame, since it is possible to leave an Econ 101 course (if it is carelessly taught) with the impression that economics tries interpret all behaviors as self-serving, or that economists have no interest in anything that is not self-serving.

Real economists do not think that way. There is a vast economics literature on other-regarding preferences, trust, reciprocity, and so on, the gist of which is that a great many behaviors cannot be explained as self-serving, at least not in anything other than the tautological sense that you yourself are happy when someone you love is happy. Try googling those terms.

The real lesson of economics is that if you want good results, do not depend on love alone. If, for example, you make it profitable for businesses to pollute, you set up a tension between the owner’s love of the environment and her self-interest. Sometimes one will win, (have you ever seen a farmer “waste” time plowing around a bird nest rather than over it? I have) but often the other. If instead you use common-sense nudges like, say, carbon taxes, you get self-interest and love pulling in the same direction. That consistently works better.

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Economist, Senior Fellow at Niskanen Center, Yale Ph.D. Interests include environment, health care policy, social safety net, economic freedom.

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