Definitions: “Incentives” v “Accountability”

Incentives give individuals reasons to act; usually, people act on certain information that signals a positive contribution to one’s own wellness. An incentive might look like this: If I do X, I will gain Y and Y makes me happy.

Accountability enables the collective to sanction individuals for undesired action. In a way, accountability serves as an inverted incentive: you know a failure to perform certain actions will result in a negative contribution to your wellness, so you try harder to perform accordingly. An accountability measure may look like this: If I fail to do X, I will lose Y and Y makes me happy.

Both incentives and accountability can influence the same set of actions. For instance:

X  ->  Y     Johnny works for a living, Johnny gets paid well.

-X -> -Y    Johnny does not work for a living, Johnny does not get paid well.

Notice the subtle difference. Incentives presuppose that individuals do not already have Y and accountability presupposes that individuals do already have Y. (By “presuppose,” I mean that the conditional holds by strength of the consequent term. We don’t care about the cases in which someone doesn’t act on the incentive or doesn’t care about being held accountable.) Y makes the individual happy; but, insofar as the individual has differing interests in increasing her happiness as opposed to avoiding a decrease in her happiness, she will respond differently to incentives than to accountability measures.

For instance: you might act on my offer to give you a free ounce of milk for each cookie you buy from me, but you might not respond if I threaten to take from you an ounce milk every time you don’t buy a cookie.

So be careful when – in arguing questions of policy – you bring up a point about providing incentives when the issue is over accountability, and visa versa. You may have confused your terms.


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