The Economics of Being Nice

Dear readers get a break today.

We’re on our way back to the USA. No time to check the markets…

Here’s something for the “miscellaneous” file, something we found in the paper this morning:

A team of Canadian researchers wanted to know if people who bought “green” products were nicer than other people. They did a study of it and came to the conclusion, as reported in The Financial Times, that “those who bought supposedly ethical products were more likely to lie, cheat and steal and less likely to take the chance to be kind.”


From this, they drew the wrong conclusions. They came to believe that there was a finite amount of niceness in the world and that those who take the trouble to buy ethical products use up much of their allotted stock.

Of course, even horrible people can be nice. And nice people can be horrible. After all, Hitler was nice to his secretaries and his dogs. But that doesn’t mean that those who are nice to their secretaries and their dogs have to incinerate Jews and gypsies. Or even yell at waiters.

Where the researchers and commentators go wrong is in the beginning. They think that buying an ‘ethical’ mutual fund…or a ‘green’ car…is a form of being nice. It is nothing of the sort. It is a substitute for being nice. Being nice is not always easy. Many people have a hard time with it. Others judge it not worth the effort…or even counterproductive. Niceness was probably as useless to Attila the Hun as virtue is to a prostitute or integrity is to a politician.

Still, most people manage to be nice most of the time…and a few – including our own mother – manage to do it practically all the time. We have never heard our mother say a word that wasn’t nice. She has never had an unkind thought, as near as we can tell.

Nice people don’t have to pretend to be nice by buying supposedly ethical products. They are nice; that’s what counts to them. The person who buys ethical products, on the other hand, is a scalawag and a hypocrite. He is not really nice at all, which is what the researchers really discovered.

“Love afar is spite at home,” wrote Emerson. He was talking about people who are nice to mother earth…but nasty to their own mothers. Or people who are nice to ‘humanity’…but mean to their next-door neighbor. Or people who whine about starving children they have never seen and ‘underprivileged’ people they hope they’d never have to meet. He was talking about people who buy a cup of “fair trade” coffee and don’t leave a tip…

Emerson knew there was no limit on niceness. He was talking about dreadful people who weren’t nice. The do-gooders. The meddlers. The improvers. The health care Democrats. And the “no child left behind’ Republicans. He was talking about all the bleeding hearts whose own hearts are as black and hard as a lump of coal.


Bill Bonner
for The Daily Reckoning