Maybe We Need More Skin in the Game

First published August 15, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I think our world, — or, more specifically, our marketplace — is a little too abstract. We — and by we, I mean the marketers, the suppliers to the market — live too far removed from the market itself: the consumers of the supplied goods.

It’s a point touched on by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his most recent book, “Antifragile.” Marketers and manufacturers, he suggests, don’t have enough skin in the game to keep them honest. They’re too far removed from accountability. There are too many protective buffers between them and the consequences of their actions.

The law is supposed to provide the accountability — but let’s face it, when it comes to enforcing accountability in the marketplace, we’re a long way from the Code of Hammurabi (one of the first legal codes known), where sloppy workmanship enacted a pretty definite penalty: If a builder has built a house for a man, and has not made his work sound, and the house he built has fallen, and caused the death of its owner, that builder shall be put to death.

Or, consider if the actions of the captain of the Exxon Valdez would have been different if he would have been answerable to a law like this: If a man has hired a boat and boatman, and loaded it with corn, wool, oil, or dates, or whatever it be, and the boatman has been careless, and sunk the boat, or lost what is in it, the boatman shall restore the boat which he sank, and whatever he lost that was in it.

The world was a smaller and more intimate place back then. You couldn’t hide behind corporate lawyers, malpractice insurance and legal loopholes. If you screwed up, chances are you’d lose an eye, a hand or even your life. If you built a bridge that collapsed, you might as well have been under the bridge, because your fate would be the same.

Now, I’m not sure we’re ready to return to the brutal simplicity of an “eye for an eye” legal code, but it does bring up a rather thorny issue: If there are little to no consequences for shoddy or unethical work, what keeps us honest? There’s nothing like skin in the game to provide some pretty compelling motivation for ethical business practices. And there’s nothing like a consequence-free pass to encourage fast and loose corporate behavior.

The good news, I suppose, is that technology is once again making the world a little more intimate. McLuhan’s Global Village is coming to pass, and the unethical of the world are increasingly being held accountable for their actions. In fact, the speed at which this is happening is confounding the legal systems of many a nation, as vigilantism and frontier justice are increasingly springing up, unchecked by due process and judicial oversight.

I avoid trying to predict the future, but fairness and accountability are hardwired into us, so I suspect that as technology allows us to identify those responsible in the most egregious cases, we will be moved to demand action. We will force the market to have more skin in the game, as our opinions and beliefs, in aggregate, will define that market.

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