Economics and Literature

by Henry Farrell on April 24, 2005

One for Daniel Davies from a book I’m reviewing.

“Monitoring, Rules, and the Control Paradox: Can the Good Soldier Svejk Be Trusted,” in Roderick M. Kramer and Karen S. Cook eds., Trust and Distrust in Organizations, New York: Russell Sage 2004.

One of the most fascinating and revealing forms of organizational sabotage is “working to rule” – precisely following rules while providing no voluntary effort beyond that required by the rules. An especially destructive form of “working to rule” involves applying the rules most carefully where they are least appropriate to the situation. This technique was perfected by Private Josef Svejk, a leading Czech cultural hero, and the eponym of Jaroslav Hasek’s satirical novel, The Good Soldier Svejk. … Svejk was taking advantage of a basic fact … it is simply impossible to specify in advance all the behaviors that the organization will require from its employees if it is to survive and thrive. This is the organizational manifestation of the phenomenon known as “contractual incompleteness” in economics (Coase 1937). … many organizational tasks simply do not lend themselves to outcome-based incentives. The rest of this paper discusses the alternative: close specification of desired behaviors by means of rules and commands, and sanctions to enforce those behaviors. In particular, I will argue that built-in inefficiencies may plague management by monitoring. The inefficiencies may be understood by picturing the monitoring relationship as a one-shot game with a Pareto-suboptimal equilibrium. … The paper will examine the nature of the “tit-for-tat” exchange that is capable of Pareto improvements in organizations in which labor contracts are based on monitoring of individual actions rather than measurement of individual outcomes. Furthermore, cooperation requires trust in that hierarchical superiors must yield some of their capacity for discovering and punishing shirking by subordinates.



Harry Hutton 04.24.05 at 10:32 pm

Jaroslav Hasek was paid by the word. That’s why he goes on a bit.


Publius 04.25.05 at 4:15 am

This is at least as old as Nietzsche. I believe he called this “Sklavmoral”, and pointed out that oppressed peoples are *always* “lazy and shiftless” by definition– because they’re under the thumb of some authoritarian or another who doesn’t *want* them to take initiative, or who at least provides them no incentive to do so.

I think RAW also called this “The SNAFU Principle”, in which the authoritarian ruler is required to be omniscient in order to keep the “ignorant” peons down– thus guaranteeing that nothing goes right. I’m oversimplifying and leaving out much important sublety, but that’s the “executive summary” anyway (NOTE: intentional, illustrative irony!).

Or as an old cow-orker once said: “Ya pay peanuts; ya get monkeys”.


onspec 04.25.05 at 5:56 am

Peter Feaver addresses the issue of agency in civil-military relations in his book, Armed Servants. It’s a critical problem: not merely have subordinates, the military, have specific expertise not available to their superiors, civilians, but it’s a coercive expertise, operational at both the individual and the societal level. I shall definately chase Kramer and Cook up–thanks.


abb1 04.25.05 at 6:06 am

Ya pay peanuts; ya get monkeys

The Soviet equivalent: they pretend that they pay and we pretend that we work.

Yeah, ‘Svejk’ is a helluva good book, funnier than Catch-22.


Jeremy Osner 04.25.05 at 7:12 am

The first thing that comes to mind when I read this passage is its possible application to public school problems and reform muvements here in the U.S. — The schools are constantly being painted by reformers as inadequately monitored and by those opposed to the reform as not amenable to monitoring, or to the type of monitoring suggested by the reformers. A key bit of this is that teachers are not trusted (at least by the reformers) to do their bit; they are thought to be shirkers who will follow only the letter of the law, and the point of the reform movement is to codify more exactly in law, what is required of the teachers.

This is the second reference I have seen to Good SOldier Svejk in the past week, now I think I will keep an eye out for it.


pierre 04.25.05 at 11:54 am

Yeah, ‘Svejk’ is a helluva good book, funnier than Catch-22.

Unless I’m mistaken, “The Good Soldier Svejk” was the basis of the movie “No Time For Sergeants” starring Andy Griffith, who was unbelievably hilarious and ironic. Recommended.

This movie performance is a bit of a shock since as we know Mr. Griffith saw which way his bread could be buttered and built a career out of playing inoffensive unironic tv sheriffs. Also obscuring the significance of the film was the fact that it was taken as inspiration for a different tv show altogether, “Gomer Pyle USMC”, whose producers do not seem to have heard of Jaroslav Hasek.


Daniel 04.25.05 at 3:11 pm

I would tentatively defend the argument that Josef Svejk is the only one who can be trusted.


Richard 04.25.05 at 4:11 pm

Daniel’s observation that Svejk is the only one whoc can be trusted is quite perceptive, particularly if we narrow it to “Josef Svejk, soldier.”

Those who’ve read the novel (and here, I admit, that I’ve read it far too often) will remember that Josef Svejk as citizen is highly “untrustworthy” — a dog thief, smart-aleck and malingerer.

It is the army that brings out his “best” characteristics — sanity, creativity, efficiency, and a strict moral compass — all in opposition to an army that is insane, rigid, inefficient and im/a-moral.

It’s a terrific book.


Nancy Lebovitz 04.25.05 at 4:44 pm

See also _Slack: Getting Past Busywork, Burnout, and the Myth of Total Efficiency_ by Tom DeMarco.


Jake McGuire 04.26.05 at 2:21 am

This shows up in a huge way in government procurement. An interesting problem to be sure, and makes me wonder if I should read the Svejk. Any translation to seek out or avoid?


dsquared 04.26.05 at 5:14 am

Get the Penguin Classics edition; I forget the translator, but he is IIRC the only one to even make an attempt at rendering Hasek’s obscenities into English (the trouble being that, apparently, the Czechs have about twenty different words for “arsehole”; Sapir & Whorf ought to look into that one)


radek 04.26.05 at 9:58 pm

Not to mention the uncountable ways of calling someone an idiot.

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