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Can We Incentivize…Ourselves?

Recently, we discussed the economic concept of “incentives,” and asked if it was ethical from a biblical perspective to use incentives to increase charity. The take-away from that discussion was that attempting to do so, particular through government action, would defeat the Christian purpose of charity. This is because charity is a dynamic relationship that involves a minimum of two parties—the charitable giver and the charitably assisted. Both benefit from the process of charity. “We are encouraged to be charitable,” we discussed, “because the process of observing the individuals in community around us, identifying their needs, matching their needs with our abilities or resources, and finally choosing to intervene in a charitable way builds Christ-like characteristics within us.”

Compounding the problem of seeking to incentivize charity, is that we can never really understand how to incentivize others. This is because each of us is different, created by God with unique talents, desires, hopes, and dreams. Keep in mind that you can never motivate someone; you can only hope to find what motivates them already. This is true in business, in school, and wherever else you are working with others.

Efforts of public policy to incentivize charity aim to create commitment by members of society to achieve a specific result—namely, alleviating poverty. Economists and public policy wonks call these kinds of efforts “commitment devices,” and such tactics can be used by anyone. Think of non-profits who send emails to their donors reminding them to mail their monthly donation. That is a commitment device. Think also of your mother calling you to remind you to take your vitamins (or whatever your mother calls about). She has to implement commitment devices for you your entire life!

This begs the next question: If we are likely the only person capable of understanding our unique motivations and desires (other than, perhaps, your mother), can we incentivize ourselves?

The answer, of course, is yes. These individually conceived and implemented schemes are called personal commitment devices. This is the fanciful economic term for what you and I might call determination, or will-power.

[pq]If we aim to incentivize charity, we should use tools like commitment devices and begin by committing ourselves.[/pq]

Think about occasions when you want to do something in the future but know that you might forget, or won’t want to do it, or simply might continue procrastinating. How do you get yourself to do that thing in the future? Typically, you would promise yourself a reward or a punishment based on what you know to be your desires.

For example, let’s imagine you want to get more exercise but you know you don’t enjoy working out. You might purchase an expensive piece of exercise equipment and place it in your living room so that your future self will see it, experience guilt, and use the machine. Maybe you know that you are forgetful, and you might download an app which reminds your future self every day to go to the gym and track your progress.

Another example from my experience in graduate school was that I would commit myself to a certain number of hours of study each night and if I achieved this goal, I would reward myself by watching a new episode of home renovations, or cooking competitions, or the adventures of some guy traveling the world eating insects. It was a sufficient incentive to get my work done!

There are whole industries that have been created to facilitate these personal commitment devices, and you likely have surrounded yourself with them.

Our modern society would probably not exist without personal commitment devices like alarm clocks, gas light indicators, to-do lists, and that beeper that tells you to close the refrigerator door. Like much of economics, these are tools which humans have developed that have allowed us to invent things, create value, flourish in our God-given vocations, and even alleviate poverty.

If we aim to incentivize charity, or any other noble goal, we should use tools like commitment devices and begin by committing ourselves.