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Incentives & Integrity

The existence of an incentive is not evidence of duplicity, it’s evidence of humanity.

Zig Ziglar was fond of saying, “everything is sales.” What he meant was that all human interaction was driven by the desire to influence one another’s behavior in an effort to acquire some form of personal gain.

It is a common fallacy, however, to suppose that self-interest is only a factor when money or material goods are involved.

The automobile salesperson has clear incentives, but perhaps the actions of the professor, or the priest, or the politician, or the philanthropist are divorced, or less affected by, a consideration of their own needs, desires, fears, insecurities, tastes, and disgusts.

This is only true if we adopt an extremely narrow concept of self-interest that excludes all the intangible examples of exchange that take place in the marketplace of ideas.

When we expand our worldview to include intangible data like people’s desire to enjoy companionship, people’s desire to fit in, people’s desire to feel appreciated, people’s desire to feel secure, people’s desire to feel recognized, people’s desire to feel that their lives are meaningful, people’s desire to avoid the discomfort of having to live in a world with things that disgust them, people’s desire to feel beautiful, people’s desire to feel at peace with their conscience, people’s desire to feel like their lives are making a positive difference in the world, people’s desire to get others to think in accordance with their agendas, etc., we discover a very basic fact about the world that can be expressed in three simple words:

None are neutral!

Everyone who interacts with you is trying to influence you to think, say, or do something that will make them feel (or avoid feeling) a certain way.

Some people are selling products. Some people are selling ideas.

Some people are selling products for cash. Some people are selling ideas for cash.

Some people are selling products in exchange for intangible goods. Some people are selling ideas in exchange for intangible goods.

Some people are selling products without having your best interest in mind. Some people are selling ideas without having your best interest in mind.

Some people are selling products that will make your life better. Some people are selling ideas that will make your life better.

But everybody’s selling something and everybody’s out to get something.

This fact, alone, should never be advanced as a basis for distrust.

To desire is human. To engage in voluntary exchange as a means of fulfilling our desires is the logical outworking of our identity as communal beings.

Despising the presence of self-interest in human action is tantamount to despising our own nature.

The person who says “never trust a person who’s trying to sell you something” is trying to sell you an idea that’s fundamentally self-stultifying.

Should we trust everyone? Absolutely not.

But we needn’t think cynically in order to think critically.

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