We all love the story of the rugged individual — hard-working, self-reliant, and through the magic of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, inadvertently helping others while pursuing one’s own self-interest. An entire world of economics has been built around this story. There is a lot of truth to the idea that this country was built on the frontier spirit of individual efforts overcoming difficult challenges to get ahead.
The problem with this story is that it ignores, or at least relegates to the background, the idea of each of us being part of a larger entity — be it our family, our neighborhood, our work team, or our country as a whole. Yes, we are out for ourselves to some extent, but we are also very likely to sacrifice our own interests to help others. Few people totally ignore the best interests of their family or community in their day-to-day choices. Our community identity can be as strong, and sometimes stronger, than our individual identity. Think of the basketball player who passes up the chance for glory in making the long shot and, instead, passes to a teammate closer to the basket. Think of the medic in combat who puts his or her own life at risk to save others. We thank our soldiers, police and firemen for their service knowing that they are risking their lives on a day-to-day basis to help protect us.
In some ways we are so interconnected that it is not clear that an intelligent alien entity from elsewhere in the universe would see us as separate individuals at all. To such an entity, we might be seen as the mass of humanity spread out across the globe. The dangers of world war, asteroid strikes, and irreversible climate change bind us together in a way not fully appreciated by Adam Smith’s invisible hand.
In displaying and waving the American flag, we are revealing and relishing in our larger identity as Americans. We are proud to be part of the greater team. Hopefully, we feel that same about our family. Some explore their genealogy to better appreciate their family heritage. But what about our work team. For some, there is great pride in the team’s efforts and achievements. For others, not so much.
If each individual is directly and completely responsible for a specific output or outcome, it is easy to provide incentives to reward their work. But what if your work team is producing and selling a product or service where the quality of the work in production and the marketing of the product in advertising is combined to produce sales. Are those sales the direct result of better quality or better advertising? It is sometimes hard to tell.
Moreover, the outcome of a team effort might only be determined by the interaction of team members in supporting and enhancing the efforts of the individuals on the team. This interaction and support is enhanced when the team as a whole is rewarded. For sports teams, the glory comes in winning as a team. Each member of the team understands that the others must do their part to enable the team to win. Rewarding the team as a whole can sometimes be just as important as rewarding each individual team member.
Going to one extreme or another in this regard can lead us astray. To the extent that it is possible to identity and measure an individual’s contribution that individual should be rewarded to that extent. However, it is also important to recognize and reward the team as a whole so that each team member will have an incentive to encourage, and sometimes cajole, other team members to do their best for the team. Success often requires team cohesion and coordination that cannot be achieved by each member just doing their own thing. We have our individual identity, but we also have our collective identity. Only rewarding individual identity misses the importance of our group identity in enabling good outcomes for the team.
On the other hand, if we only reward the team, as a team, and ignore the extent to which a particular individual has contributed to the team’s success, we run the risk of encouraging free riders who make little effort with the hope that their teammates will make up the difference. This was the fundamental mistake of communism — simply dividing up the team’s profits equally without regard to individual efforts. Clearly, maximizing economic productivity requires just the right combination of rewarding the team as a whole and rewarding individuals according to their individual contributions. Every enterprise may be different in this regard so broad oversimplifications of this complicated challenge are likely to be misleading. Too much emphasis on individual effort alone can be just as foolish as simply rewarding the team as a whole without regard to each member’s contribution.