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Signaling Goodness

Social Rules and Public Choice

Phillip J. Nelson and Kenneth V. Greene

Publication Year: 2003

Political, intellectual, and academic discourse in the United States has been awash in political correctness, which has itself been berated and defended -- yet little understood. As a corrective, Nelson and Greene look at a more general process: adopting political positions to enhance one's reputation for trustworthiness both to others and to oneself. Phillip Nelson and Kenneth Greene are Professors of Economics in the Department of Economics at the State University of New York, Binghamton.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Economics, Cognition, and Society


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pp. v

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1. Overview

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pp. 1-10

Political, intellectual, and academic discourse in the United States has been awash in "political correctness." It has been both berated and defended, but there has been little attempt to understand it. We do so by looking at a more general process: adopting political positions to enhance one's reputation. Long before "political correctness" came to American colleges, Reilly, a character in T. S. Eliot's Cocktail Party (1950), observed, ...

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2. Charity and Evolution

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pp. 11-27

Why do people give to charity? Our thesis is that charity is a signal that a person can be trusted in interpersonal relationships. People signal by engaging in socially approved activities at some cost to themselves. We also recognize a "conscience" motivation, where conscience is defined as the internalization of social norms, a desire to follow social rules because one feels better by so doing.

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3. Charity and Reciprocity

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pp. 28-57

This chapter contains a simple reputational model of charity. That model not only applies to charity as usually defined but to voting participation, which we examine in the next chapter. Both are cases of socially approved behavior, and both involve costs to participants. A reputation for good deeds requires others to know about them. Relatively few people know about many donations, and fewer still about ...

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4. Political Charity

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pp. 58-71

In the last chapter we developed a reputational theory of charity, a theory about any pro social behavior that has costs to the individual so engaged. Voter participation and commonly defined charity qualify as such behavior. The former has time costs and is regarded as having favorable social consequences. There is a positive externality from either being a voter or being the sort of person who would vote.

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5. Political Positions and Imitative Behavior

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pp. 72-97

What determines people's political positions?1 Two hypotheses have dominated the literature. On the whole, economists have emphasized self-interest (Stigler 1971; Peltzman 1980). But some (for example, Kau and Rubin 1979, 1982; Kalt and Zupan 1984) maintain that political positions are influenced by ideology. These economists base their ideology hypothesis in part on altruism (Kalt and Zupan 1984).

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6. Goodness

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pp. 98-120

In the last chapter we saw how people adopt political positions to signal to others that they want to be their friends or to be involved in reciprocal relationships with them. We saw that it is credible that the signaler will be more trustworthy toward those whose political position he imitates than toward others. But a person can also use political positions to signal in two other ways.

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7. Activism

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pp. 121-132

In this chapter we examine the behavior of activists. We define activists as those who use substantial amounts of time or money to influence public policy and who clearly proclaim their political position in so doing, but who have no obvious narrow self-interest gain from this behavior. Thus the definition excludes such individuals as lobbyists for price supports for agriculture and the organizations that pay their bills.

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8. A Study of Political Positions

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pp. 133-166

In this chapter we test the theory developed in chapter 6 by focusing on three implications of that theory. First, the lower the cost of signaling "goodness," the more people will adopt "progoodness" political positions. This proposition cannot simply be derived from the downward-sloping demand curve because in our case there is a contrary force.

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9. The Growth of Government

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pp. 167-178

In the course of the past century government expenditures, including transfer payments, in developed democracies grew from at most a sixth to generally over two-fifths of national income. We believe the standard economic explanations for this growth are inadequate. That belief is shared by others such as Holsey and Borcherding (1997).

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10. Environmental Policy

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pp. 179-198

What determines a person's political position on environmental issues? In chapter 6 we developed a theory of asymmetric "goodness" applicable to environmental issues as well as redistributive policy. A person is considered "good" if he supports environmental causes, but is not considered "good" if he opposes those causes. Group survival is the ultimate cause of that asymmetry.

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pp. 199-201

Much of this book focuses on the concept of asymmetric "goodness": for issues such as child care, health, the environment, and redistribution to the poor a person advocates greater government expenditures in part to signal that he is "good," that is, generally trustworthy. Asymmetric goodness has a wide range of implications.

Appendix 1: Reciprocity

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pp. 203-205

Appendix 2: Charity

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pp. 207-209

Appendix 3: Political Positions with "Goodness"

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pp. 211-212


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pp. 213-236


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pp. 237-239


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pp. 241-251


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pp. 253-261

E-ISBN-13: 9780472026173
E-ISBN-10: 0472026178
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472113477
Print-ISBN-10: 047211347X

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 9 tables
Publication Year: 2003

Series Title: Economics, Cognition, and Society