Is cheaper monitoring technology a good thing?

In settings in which the effort or actions of one party to a transaction (say, an employee or a professional services provider like a consultant or a lawyer) cannot be easily observed or verified, we have a situation known as the hidden action problem. The asymmetry of information means that contracts and interactions will likely not be as efficient or productive as they would if the action were equally observable (and verifiable) on both sides.
In the very large literature on this problem (in economics, management science and law), one standard bit of received wisdom is that there is a direct trade-off between costly monitoring and providing costly incentives to perform that are self-enforcing (that is, the incentives make it in the self-interest of the party with the information advantage to act as if the information were equally shared). (See, e.g., Eisenhardt, K. (1989). Agency Theory: An Assessment and Review. Academy of Management
, 14(1), 57-74.) As the costs of technology or systems to monitor behavior fall for certain applications, principals will want to rely more on monitoring and less on inducement.
One of my graduate students, Pieter Kleymeer, pointed out a company selling Cataphora, which it claims is “the most comprehensive electronic evidence management and analysis platform available”. They promote this both for litigation applications (who said what to whom about what when?), but also, for example, for monitoring the electronic communications of one’s own employees.
Pieter asked me the following very good question: “What does this say about the inherent trust built into a contract? If we don’t need contracts to incentivize behavior and instead directly monitor behavior, don’t we lose trust or good faith between the parties?”
What Pieter raises is that following the cost curve down for monitoring technology may have adverse consequences. When people are induced to behave honestly because they want to (positive incentives) rather than because they can’t get away with untrustworthy behavior and will be punished (monitoring), perhaps there is more and better social capital, which creates a positive feedback loop and other social benefits. (*Maybe* — it’s not necessarily the case that people respond “better” or differently to positive rather than negative incentives — but it’s a plausible conjecture that they might.) The immediate savings from using less expensive monitoring technology rather than providing costly incentives to encourage loyalty, honesty and trustworthiness may be outweighed by losses from allowing a culture to develop in which people are only trying to avoid getting caught. I don’t know if there is any research literature on this possible structural cost from relying more on monitoring.
One of my colleagues in the Economics Department (Joel Slemrod) is fond of saying that the US has a voluntary income tax system: monitoring is so low that it makes rational sense for most people to cheat (more) on their taxes, yet compliance appears (based on lots of studies) to be relatively high. Somehow we have established a system of trust and civic responsibility in which enough people *want* to honestly pay their taxes that we raise enough revenue without more draconian monitoring and enforcement.


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