Samuel Bowles (economist)

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Samuel Bowles
Born 1939 (age 74–75)
New Haven, Connecticut
Institution University of Massachusetts Amherst
Field Economic theory, Microeconomics, Social psychology
School/tradition Neo-Marxian economics
Alma mater Harvard University (PhD)
Yale University (B.A.)
Influences Karl Marx
Influenced Herbert Gintis
Duncan K. Foley
Contributions Schooling in Capitalist America

Samuel Stebbins Bowles (/blz/; born 1939) is an American economist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he continues to teach courses on microeconomics and the theory of institutions.[1] His work belongs to the Neo-Marxian[2][3][4] (variably called Post-Marxian)[5][6][7] tradition of economic thought; however, his perspective on economics is eclectic and draws on various schools of thought, including what he (and others) refer to as post-Walrasian economics.[8]


Bowles, the son of US Ambassador and Connecticut Governor Chester Bowles,[9] graduated with a B.A. from Yale University in 1960, where he was a founding member of the Yale Russian Chorus, participating in their early tours of the Soviet Union. Subsequently, he received his PhD in Economics from Harvard University in 1965 with thesis titled The Efficient Allocation of Resources in Education: A Planning Model with Applications to Northern Nigeria. In 1973 Bowles was hired, along with Herbert Gintis, Stephen Resnick, Richard D. Wolff and Richard Edwards as part of the "radical package" that was hired by the Economics Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he taught until 2001.

Currently, Bowles is a Professor of Economics at the University of Siena, Italy, and the Arthur Spiegel Research Professor and Director of the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Additionally, Bowles continues to teach graduate-level courses in microeconomics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.[10]

In 2006 he was awarded the Leontief Prize for his outstanding contribution to economic theory by the Global Development and Environment Institute.


Bowles has challenged economic theories that free markets and inequality maximize efficiency, and argued that self-interested financial incentives can produce behavior that is inefficient and violates a society's morality. He has argued that economies with more equality, such as Asian countries, have outperformed economies with more inequality, such as Latin American countries.

Academic work and interests[edit]

On his website at the Santa Fe Institute, he describes his two main academic interests as first, "the co-evolution of preferences, institutions and behavior, with emphasis on the modeling and empirical study of cultural evolution, the importance and evolution of non-self-regarding motives in explaining behavior, and applications of these studies to policy areas such as intellectual property rights, the economics of education and the politics of government redistributive programs." The second is concerned with "the causes and consequences of economic inequality, with emphasis on the relationship between wealth inequalities, incomplete contracts, and governance of economic transactions in firms, markets, families and communities."[11]

He frequently collaborates with his former colleague, Herbert Gintis (another Emeritus Professor of Economics from Umass Amherst), both of whom were asked by Martin Luther King Jr. to write background papers for the 1968 Poor People's March.[12]

In addition, he works with and is supported by The MacArthur Research Network on Preferences, The MacArthur Research Network on the Effects of Inequality on Economic Performance, and the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute.

He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books, and is currently working with Gintis on the manuscript for A Cooperative Species: Human Sociality and its Evolution[13]

Selfishness vs. altruism[edit]

Bowles has recently studied the way that people are motivated by selfishness and the desire to maximize their own income, as compared to altruism and the desire to do a good job and be well regarded by others. Real-world experiments show that, contrary to traditional economic theories, market incentives destroy cooperation and are less efficient than voluntary, altruistic behavior "in most cases."[14]

People act not only for material interests but also "to constitute themselves as dignified, autonomous, and moral individuals," he wrote.

Behavioral experiments suggest that "economic incentives may be counterproductive when they signal that selfishness is an appropriate response" and "undermine the moral values that lead people to act altruistically." Bowles gives the example of day care centers in Haifa, where a fine was imposed on parents who were late picking up their children at the end of the day. Rather than avoiding late pick-ups, parents responded by doubling the fraction of time they arrived late. After 12 weeks the fine was revoked, but the enhanced tardiness persisted unabated. According to Bowles, this illustrates a "kind of negative synergy" between economic incentives and moral behavior. "The fine seems to have undermined the parents' sense of ethical obligation to avoid inconveniencing the teachers and led them to think of lateness as just another commodity they could purchase."

Bowles cites research by Ernst Fehr and others establishing that behavioral experiments modeling the voluntary provision of public goods show that "substantial fractions of most populations adhere to moral rules, willingly give to others, and punish those who offend standards of appropriate behavior, even at a cost to themselves and with no expectation of material reward".

Diego Rivera's mural of factory workers at Ford's River Rouge assembly plant shows that organizations motivate members "by appealing to other-regarding motives such as the desire to do a good job and a sense of reciprocal obligations among members of a firm," Bowles wrote.

In most cases, "Incentives undermine ethical motives." "Incentives may frame a decision problem and thereby suggest self-interest as appropriate behavior." Simply using market terminology offers justifications for actions that would otherwise be unjustifiable.

Economic structures of societies produce people with different values.

In a game in which individuals could choose how much to withdraw from a common pool ("the forest"), the withdrawal that maximized the gains of the group was substantially less than the withdrawal that maximized the gains of the individual. When subjects were trained in a game with incentives to be selfish, they continue to be selfish even when they play in a second game without those incentives.

In a "regulation" model, where individuals were fined for "overexploitation," their behavior was entirely self-interested.

In a society, "if the relevant incentives allow the selfish to exploit the civic-minded, then the latter are less likely to be copied."

But in studies of 15 small-scale societies, "individuals from the more market-integrated societies were also more fair-minded" in that they made more generous offers, and preferred to reject an unfair offer even at the cost of receiving nothing.

In these societies, "individuals engaging in mutually beneficial exchanges with strangers represent models of successful behavior who are then copied by others."

Inequality vs. economic success[edit]

"What is the relationship between inequality and the economic success of nations, firms, and local communities?" Bowles asks. At University of California, Berkeley, he and other researchers have challenged two views long held by most economists: Inequality goes hand-in-hand with a nation's economic success, and that reducing economic inequalities inevitably compromises efficiency. For instance, he wrote, "East Asian countries with relatively level distributions of income have dramatically outperformed Latin American countries with less equal income distributions. Investments in the nutrition, health, and education of poor children have produced not only more economic opportunity but higher economic performance. Indeed, emerging economic theory suggests that inequality may have adverse effects, blunting productive incentives and fueling costly conflicts between haves and have-nots."[15]

The traditional debate has been polarized, Bowles said, between ideal models of equality that overlooked the role of incentives, and idealized models of the private market that overlooked inequality.

The Berkeley group studied four questions:

  1. How does inequality affect cooperation in local communities, and impact the local environment and other public goods, like irrigation water, neighborhood safety and other residential amenities, fisheries, forestry, and grazing lands?
  2. How do inequalities affect the efficiency and productivity of farms, firms, and other entities, and are there more efficient forms of governance that can be promoted?
  3. How do economic disparities among citizens affect bargaining, policy making, and economic performance at a national level?
  4. What principles can guide the design of efficient and politically viable policies to alleviate poverty and enhance economic opportunity for the less well off?

See also[edit]


  • 1969. Planning Educational Systems for Economic Growth. Harvard University Press, M.A.
  • 1976. Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. With Herbert Gintis. Basic Books, N.Y.
  • 1980. Notes and Problems in Microeconomic Theory. With David Kendrick, 1st ed., with Peter Dixon, 2nd ed. North Holland Texts in Mathematical Economics, Amsterdam.
  • 1983. "Beyond the Wasteland: a democratic alternative to economic decline." With David M. Gordon and Thomas E. Weisskopf. Anchor Press/Doubleday, NY.
  • 1987. Democracy and Capitalism: Property, Community, and the Contradictions of Modern Social Thought. With Herbert Gintis. Basic Books, N.Y.
  • 1998. The Politics and Economics of Power. Co-edited with M. Franzini and U. Paguano. Routledge, London.
  • 1999. Recasting Egalitarianism: New Rules for Markets, Communities and States. Co-edited with Herbert Gintis. Verso, London, 1999.
  • 2000. Meritocracy and Economic Inequality. Co-edited with Kenneth Arrow and Steven Durlauf. Princeton University Press, N.J.
  • 2004. Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from 15 small-scale societies. Co-edited with Joe Henrich, Robert Boyd, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, and Herbert Gintis. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • 2004. Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution. Princeton University Press, N.J.
  • 2005. Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success. Co-edited with Herbert Gintis and Melissa Osborne Groves. Princeton University Press and Russell Sage Foundation.
  • 2005. Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life. Co-edited with Robert Boyd, Ernst Fehr and Herbert Gintis. MIT Press, M.A..
  • 2005. Poverty Traps. Co-edited with Steven Durlauf and Karla Hoff. Princeton University Press, N.J.
  • 2005. Understanding Capitalism: Competition, Command, and Change. With Frank Roosevelt and Richard Edwards. Oxford University Press. Textbook.
  • 2005. Globalization and Egalitarian Redistribution. Co-edited with Pranab Bardhan and Michael Wallerstein. Princeton University Press and Russell Sage Foundation, 2005.
  • 2006. Inequality, Cooperation, and Environmental Sustainability. Co-edited with Jean-Marie Baland and Pranab Bardhan. Princeton University Press, N.J.
  • 2011. A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. With Herbert Gintis. Princeton University Press, N.J.


  1. ^ Samuel Bowles UMass Amherst Dept. of Economics Faculty.
  2. ^ Stanfield, J. R. (1989). "Veblenian and Neo-Marxian Perspectives on the Cultural Crisis of Late Capitalism". Journal of Economic Issues 23 (3): 717–734. JSTOR 4226169. 
  3. ^ Green, F.; Weisskopf, T. E. (1990). "The Worker Discipline Effect: A Disaggregative Analysis". Review of Economics and Statistics 72 (2): 241–249. JSTOR 2109713. 
  4. ^ Mason, P. L. (1993). "Variable Labor Effort, Involuntary Unemployment, and Effective Demand: Irreconcilable Concepts?". Journal of Post Keynesian Economics 15 (3): 427–442. JSTOR 4538355. 
  5. ^ Samuel Bowles, "Post-marxian economics: Labour, learning and history", Social Science Information, Volume 24 (3): 507, SAGE – Sep 1, 1985.
  6. ^ Barry Stewart Clark, Political economy: a comparative approach, ABC-CLIO, 1998, p. 67.
  7. ^ Richard D. Wolff and Stephen Cullenberg, "Marxism and Post-Marxism", Social Text 15 (Fall 1986), 126–135.
  8. ^ Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis (1993). "Post-Walrasian Political Economy". In Bowles, Samuel, Herbert Gintis, and Bo Gustafsson. Markets and Democracy: Participation, Accountability and Efficiency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–10. ISBN 9780511983580. Retrieved 27 November 2012. 
  9. ^ Schaffer, Howard B., Chester Bowles: New Dealer in the Cold War, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 13.
  10. ^ UMass Amherst Fall 2010 Schedule of Classes
  11. ^ Samuel Bowles
  12. ^ "Born Poor? Santa Fe economist Samuel Bowles says you better get used to it"
  13. ^
  14. ^ Samuel Bowles (June 20, 2008). "Policies designed for self-interested citizens may undermine "the moral sentiments": Evidence from economic experiments". Science (journal) (320): 1605–1609. doi:10.1126/science.1152110. 
  15. ^ Samuel Bowles Home Page of the Network on the Effects of Inequality on Economic Performance

External links[edit]