Character Has Spillover Benefits Which Are Rivalrous

The title kind of spoils the punchline, doesn’t it?

Sam W asks if good character is a public good. He says, on the one hand, that the benefits of one’s character are clearly fairly geographically limited in scope. On the other hand, the spillovers from bad character are so excessively negative that perhaps there’s something of a public good from simply getting people above that threshold.

On the other hand, in thinking over the honor vs honoring, he noted:

Thumbnail economic reasoning suggests that the spillover benefits of private type A honor are not captured in its price, suggesting that it should be under-supplied. Whether or not it actually is under-supplied is not a question I believe cannot easily be answered.

Still, the theory strikes me as reasonable. And I believe it strikes ordinary people as reasonable, too. That’s why we have type B honor. We bestow ribbons and medals to Soldiers and Sailors, we erect monuments and statues, we sing songs, tell tales, and speak in awed, hushed tones about those among us who have acted with greatness. This compunction to reward honor, whether intentional or not, compensates the honorable for their private excellence.

Thus there have always existed private mechanisms for provisioning the external benefits of character.

What I want to suggest is that good character has spillover benefits, but that these benefits are rivalrous, and therefore good character is not a public good in the classical Samuelsonian sense.

Consider the reliable man, living in a community suddenly beset by some natural disaster. He can be expected not to get in the way or panic, but also to pitch in in any way he can. As Sam put it, “The eusocial urge to tidy up after a blustery day cannot be anything but part of eudaimonia.” A community of reliable people can pick up more quickly, move beyond a disaster sooner, than a community where reliable people are in the minority.

But the per person contribution is relatively small, and is capable of being misdirected or misspent. Even the reliable man only has a 24 hour day. Even the community of reliable people does not have an expert on every subject, may need to hire civil engineers from outside of their group in order to repair the damage done by a hurricane or earthquake. The expertise, time, and simple muscle that are volunteered in such a situation are scarce goods that need to be allocated carefully.

This is why I prefer an ethic that prioritizes concrete problems with direct feedback over telescopic concerns. The good character of the few is good for the many, but its spillovers ought to be prudently directed.

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