Economics 101

Is It Wrong to Incentivize People to Do Things?

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Why do we do good things? Why do we carry out acts of love and charity? Conversely, why do we make bad decisions or choose to do evil or harmful things?

This answer is a basic biblical principle. But first, why bother talking about why incentives matter?

Why Incentives Matter

Understanding incentives helps us understand human nature. As economists James Gwartney, Richard Stroup, and Dwight Lee explain in Common Sense Economics:

Understanding incentives is an extremely powerful tool for understanding why people do the things they do because the impact of incentives can be seen on almost every level, from simple family decision making to securities markets and international trade…There’s no way to get around the importance of incentives. It’s a part of human nature.

Lee further expounds on this in an article he wrote for The Freeman. Discussing the power of incentives, Lee writes,

The surest way to get people to behave in desirable ways is to reward them for doing so—in other words, to provide them with incentives. This is so obvious that you might think it hardly deserves mention. You might say that people shouldn’t have to be rewarded to do desirable things.

Christians might push back and argue we should do good because we love Jesus, not because we are being rewarded. We should, but we can’t always do good for the right reasons all the time. Our fallen human nature prevents this.

The good news is that God perfectly understands our fallen nature. Thus, the notion of reward is woven through the Bible.

So Is It Wrong to Incentivize People to Do Things?

Incentives are hardwired into human nature. God knows humans need incentives to guide their decisions and behavior. Even before the Fall, God gave an incentive to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 2:16-17 says,

And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’

The incentive here is that if Adam obeys God’s command, he will live.

J.I. Packer argues that incentives are a part of our covenant relationship with God. In On Covenant Theology, he writes that while God initiates relationship with his people, there are blessings to be received as a reward for faithfulness:

The God-given covenant carries, of course, obligations. The life of faith and repentance, and the obedience to which faith leads, constitute the covenant-keeping through which God’s people receive the fullness of God’s covenant blessing. ‘I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession’ (Ex. 19:4 f.). Covenant faithfulness is the condition and means of receiving covenant benefits, and there is nothing arbitrary in that; for the blessings flow from the relationship, and human rebelliousness and unfaithfulness stop the flow by disrupting the relationship. Israel’s infidelity was constantly doing this throughout the Old Testament story, and the New Testament makes it plain that churches and Christians will lose blessings that would otherwise be theirs, should covenant fidelity be lacking in their lives.

Even the New Testament makes clear that we can’t even love God of our own volition. We are selfish and greedy and sinful. Without Christ, we aren’t fully capable of that pure love that gives without getting (though common grace does provide for exceptions).

1 John 4:19 says,

We love because he first loved us.

Our love is a response. Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, has given us a reason to love him. A relationship with Christ gives us:

1. Hope for today, and for the future.

2. A relationship with our Creator, the King of the universe.

3. A bond of love we could never otherwise conceive.

Is it wrong to incentivize others? No. Should Christians care about incentives? Yes. Even our love for Christ is the acknowledgment of a very powerful and positive incentive.

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  • mark barr

    Good article, but you really should define incentives and motives. I think it was Zig Zigler who said the fine line between a salesman and a con artist was motive. And Ravi Zacharia states the difference between temptation and trials as intent. If our incentives carry the intent of creating lust for goods or security, then it will be difficult to discern the goodness thereof. Godbless, thanks for all your work, your research and articles are very thought provoking.

  • PeterKushkowski

    Re Genesis 2:17 “…for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’”
    Assuming there was no death before the Fall, how would Adam and Eva know what this reference to death meant?

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