The Puzzle Of Persistent Praise

We often praise and criticize people for the things they do. And while we have many kinds of praise, one very common type (which I focus on in this post) seems to send the message “what you did was good, and it would be good if more of that sort of thing were done.” (Substitute “bad” for “good” to get the matching critical message.)

Now if it would be good to have more of some act, then that act is a good candidate for something to subsidize more. And if most people agreed that this sort of act deserved more subsidy, then politicians should be tempted to run for office on the platform that they will increase the actual subsidy given to that kind of act. After all, if we want more of some kind of acts, why don’t we try to better reward those acts? And so good acts shouldn’t long remain with an insufficient subsidy. Or bad acts without an insufficient tax.

But in fact we seem to have big categories of acts which we consistently praise for being good, and where this situation persists for decades or centuries. Think charity, innovation, or artistic or sport achievement. Our political systems do not generate much political pressure to increase the subsidies for such things. Subsidy-increasing proposals are not even common issues in elections. Similarly, large categories of acts are consistently criticized, yet few politicians run on platforms proposing to increase taxes on such acts.

My best interpretation of this situation is that while our words of praise give the impression that we think that most people would agree that the acts we praise are good, and should be more common, we don’t really believe this. Either we think that the acts signal impressive or praise-worthy features, but shouldn’t be more common, or we think such acts should be more common, but we also see large opposing political coalitions who disagree with our assessment.

That is, my best guess is that when we look like we are praising acts for promoting a commonly accepted good, we are usually really praising impressiveness, or we are joining in a partisan battle on what should be seen as good.

Because my explanation is cynical, many people count it as “extraordinary”, and think powerful extraordinary evidence must be mustered before one can reasonably suggest that it is plausible. In contrast, the usual self-serving idealistic explanations people give for their behavior are ordinary, and therefore can be accepted on face value without much evidence at all being offered in their defense. People get mad at me for even suggesting cynical theories in short blog posts, where large masses of extraordinary evidences have not been mustered. I greatly disagree with this common stacking of the deck against cynical theories.

Even so, let us consider some seven other possible explanations of this puzzle of persistent praise (and criticism). And in the process make what could have been a short blog post considerably longer.

1. One explanation is that our political systems are just very slow. For example, once upon a time many firefighters were voluntary, and praised, and we have slowly switched to paying them salaries. But the firefighter trend is better explained by increasing city size. And our political systems seems quite capable of acting quickly when there is a strong consensus for an outcome. Consider how fast my Policy Analysis Market was killed.

2. Another explanation is that subsidizes and taxes have administrative costs, costs which vary with context. So even if we had the right level of subsidies and taxes for everything, good acts in contexts where subsidy costs were especially high would remain especially good – it would be good to have more of them, if only it didn’t cost so much to subsidize them. But the things we most praise and criticize do not seem to me especially hard to subsidize or tax.

3. A related theory is that we praise and criticize acts where we have private info on their goodness, info that would not be available to a government seeking to subsidize or tax them. But this theory implies that each category of acts that governments can distinguish would be roughly evenly divided into a subcategory that we praise and a subcategory that we criticize, to produce a roughly zero average net praise or criticism across the category. This prediction does not seem to hold, even remotely.

4. Another explanation is that while local governments can coordinate to subsidize and tax things that are good or bad for local citizens, the world fails to coordinate to subsidize and tax things that are good and bad for the world as a whole. This theory predicts that the acts we most praise and criticize are acts where their main consequences being praised or criticized are consequences for the world, rather than local consequences. This prediction also does not seem to hold, even remotely.

5. One might say that our praise and criticism is part of our total system of taxes and subsidies, so that when the praise and criticism is included we do have just the right level of overall tax and subsidy for each type of act. This theory predicts that we don’t much care much if there is more or less criticism of anything, since we are already near the optimal level of activities; so in fact we don’t think more would be substantially better. It also predicts that if many more people were to agree with us and shout their enthusiastic agreement, we would be horrified, and switch our position to the opposite stance in order to compensate for this excess subsidy or tax. This prediction does not seem remotely correct.

6. One might claim that most people think that an act being good or bad is not a sufficient moral justification to subsidize or tax it in order to get more or less of it. People instead apply more restrictive moral principles to decide when taxes or subsidies are morally justified. But many of the acts that we praise and criticize are already subsidized and taxed. And given the wide range of subsidies and taxes that exist, it is hard to see restrictive moral principles as being applied very often.

7. Finally, one might say that the behaviors of the people who do the things we praise and criticize are not influenced by subsidies or taxes. There are no possible obstacles in their way that we might pay to remove, or to increase. Or, they will always exactly compensate any material incentives we introduce with effort changes, to produce exactly the same quantity of relevant acts. Also, it must be that they either don’t respond at all to more or less praise or criticism, or governments can’t pay to create more or less praise or criticism, via schools, movies. etc. This does not seem remotely true of most of the acts that we praise and criticize.

I’ve examined seven alternate theories and found them wanting. But I haven’t offered anything close to extraordinary evidence. So my cynical story must be wrong, and the usual idealistic stories must be right. Forget everything I said …

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  • Charles Zheng

    Acts are praised not only because they are valued, but also because people feel those acts are not sufficiently rewarded.

    Therefore, acts are praised until they are subsidized. Once they are subsidized, people feel that those acts are already sufficiently rewarded, and hence give less praise for those acts.

    But not all acts can be subsidized, even if lawmakers are willing to support those acts. Innovation and art are both difficult to objectively evaluate. In particular, since art is politically charged, a government subsidy for art would lack credibility; this lack of credibility renders impossible the necessary components for assembling a subsidy for art (collecting a board of experts in the art world, a reward of political capital for the lawmakers who propose and support the subsidy).

    Hence valuable acts which are impossible to subsidize continually receive praise.

    • The difficulty of evaluation effects both subsidies and praise similarly. If you can evaluate well enough to praise, you can subsidize.

      • IMASBA

        “If you can evaluate well enough to praise, you can subsidize.”

        No, introducing money attracts all kinds of parasites and ulterior motives. Also, praise does not have to come from an electoral majority. Art is a great example, it mostly consists of a small community that’s completely different from mainstream society (you can get a lot of praise even if 95% of the population would despise you if they were exposed to your work).


    How exactly would you promote charity through subsidies (generally we like the idea of acts that may be rewarded through praise but not through material things)? Subsidies would attract the wrong crowds. Now of course the question is whether something should be left to charity at all (firefighters work just fine when they’re getting paid so wanting to pay them makes sense). And even if subsidies help, they may not be worth it compared to subsidizing something else.

    When it comes to banning things you subsidize, well, that always has side effects (you probably have some vague idea of what you want to ban, but in law you have to define the limits of the ban very strictly *) and yes, you have to think about opposing coalitions: there has to be very broad popular support for the ban.

    Imagine the “paradox” of the heap. You might want to ban people having “heaps” of old cars on their lawns, but to ban that you have to put a specific number on the word “heap” (which is hard to pin down because you do not consciously have access to the number your mind uses and it might strongly disagree with the numbers other people’s minds use). The alternative is leaving the number up to a judge or jury to determine but that leads to wildly varying enforcement of the ban you had in mind and can alienate a lot of people.

    • If you can determine what is a “heap” well enough to criticize it, you can determine that well enough to tax it.

      • IMASBA

        It’s a “I know it when I see it” situation, there are a lot of those in politics and it gets even worse because the politician can’t be sure his/her subconscious treshold is the same as that of the majority of his voters (or whether there is a majority of voters that have similar subconscious tresholds in the first place).

        One way to deal with this (and I’m sure this explanation is right up your alley): there’s a lot to gain from saying your for something, while there’s a lot to lose from introducing actual legislation that may expose the different subconscious tresholds people have. One good example is “hard working citizens”, or “middle class” or “family values”, almost everyone thinks those terms apply to them and a politician can gain a lot by playing on people’s fears that there’s a barbarian horde to whom those terms do not apply, knocking on the gates. Yet when push comes to shove and the politician would actually introduce legislation on suddenly a lot of people would be alienated. So just stick with the rhetoric, history proves it can be enough to get you elected.

        Another explanation, also right up your alley: people are not very empathic toward others who are mentally or spatially far away from them: shop lifters should be severely punished, scum that they are, yet when your own teenage child shoplifts they are of course simply misguided, troubled young people in need of guidance rather than severe legal punishment. Or: the unemployed are lazy scum, they should be made to suffer for it, yet when you or a friend become jobless it is of course the fault of the economy. So if a politician were to introduce actual legislation it would hit too close to home for a lot of people.

        And it’s not like politicians have to be consciously aware of all these considerations, over time the system may effectively select against politicians who act against these considerations.

    • Ronfar

      “How exactly would you promote charity through subsidies”

      This is done in the United States through a tax deduction.

      • IMASBA

        That promotes giving money to official “charities”, that’s not the same as increasing charitable behavior. When people find out some rich person used donations to lower his own tax bill they suddenly find the donation a lot less praiseworthy, because they don’t see it as truly being charitable. So this particular subsidy is not a proper response to praise for charitable people, add to that that this subsidy really only works for rich people, a small minority and you have another reason why it fails at making people more charitable.

      • When people find out some rich person used donations to lower his own tax bill they suddenly find the donation a lot less praiseworthy

        I don’t know about that, IMASBA. If people praise the donation much less when they know about its opportunistic purposes, why isn’t there more scrutiny? You would expect the press to be exposing the tax deductions Bill Gates has obtained from his charitable foundation, etc.

        Theoretically, you would expect less praise given the new information. But on the other side of the equation is the fact that acknowledging charity in the tax code increases the status of charity by putting the authority of the state behind it.

  • ScottH3

    Encouraging an ever increasing litany of acts to tax or subsidize is a simultaneous frontal assault on liberty.

    • I guess you didn’t read as far as point #6.

      • ScottH3

        I just wasn’t that impressed with #6. It seems that you reached a conclusion that wasn’t supported by your logic. Let me give you an analogous argument to yours… We have war. Why don’t we have more war? Well, some people say we may apply more restrictive moral principles on potential wars. However, we’ve had plenty of wars so it’s hard to see restrictive moral principles being applied very often.

      • I’ll bit that bullet. Moral qualms are not the main reason that we don’t have more wars.

      • ScottH3

        Well, moral qualms are the reason I oppose most wars along with most “act” subsidies and taxes.

      • Robin’s point is that you are not the determining factor in what policies we have, and that’s the question he’s interested in.

  • Chris Yung

    Incomplete contracts. If we legally define what ethical behaviors are to be subsidized, folks will game the system. Lots of cases where we’ll say “yeah, this meets the legal definition for the contract we wrote, but in retrospect probably shouldn’t be rewarded.” Praising ethical behavior requires determining what the giver had to sacrifice. This is subjective and idiosyncratic, because it depends so much on the identity of the giver and the receiver, the precise nature of the situation, etc., so it’s best left to an informal system of rewards.

    • And the system of praise isn’t gamed? Or the gaming there is somehow not as bad?

      • Chris Yung

        Not as bad. Humans have evolved very good BS detectors for determining when someone is inflating how much they’ve sacrificed. It would be extremely difficult to codify what system of calculations we use to do so.

      • Then you are saying something like #3, which has the problems I describe above.

      • Chris Yung

        I don’t understand #3. Praise and criticism arent evenly distributed because 1) it is more costly to criticize people than praise them, and 2) actors may not have an equal number of good actions and bad actions available. None of this is related to my point that it’s hard to write contracts specifying exactly which actions are ethical under what circumstances.

      • Humans have evolved very good BS detectors for determining when someone is inflating how much they’ve sacrificed.

        People have also evolved excellent BS-producing modules to counter them.

        The net result seems to be that humans are rather bad at detecting lies.

  • joeteicher

    Perhaps I am dense but to me #5 is not obviously wrong, and in fact it’s very plausible. You make it seem implausible by saying that am individual would go from praise to criticism based on the level of praise of others. People who are actively praising probably think the activity is underpraised, so they wouldn’t change their behavior, but others who are more on the fence can be pushed towards praise or criticism based on the general level of praise. Personally, I’m a bit of a contrarian so I instinctively wish to find the good in things others are criticizing and take overpraised things down a peg.

  • Lord

    Many things we do are already subsidized or taxed so it is not like there is any shortage of this. Anything government does is effectively subsidized. Anything government doesn’t tax is as well. This seems a straw argument in that unless we provide free goods and prohibit bads, which we do do in select areas, we don’t really want more or less of them, while the real situation is while there are a plethora of goods and bads, more of some goods will mean less of others, and less of some bads will mean more of others, so this is a balancing act. So 5 comes closest to truth but it loses the political dynamic that while society may favor or disfavor, concentrated interests may extract and oppose, and while some do want more free goods and prohibitions, there is no unanimity as to which goods and bads. Often people even recognize the same goods and bads and accept the praise and criticism without meaning they want more or less or have concerns over those administrative costs, efficiency and effectiveness, and the interests those subsidies and taxes would create, so 2, 3, and 4 all have some truth.

    • You miss the point. Even with the subsidies and taxes that we have, we still think some things deserve praise or blame. Which says we don’t think the subsidies and taxes are at the right level. If you say the key is that we disagree about how much is good, that was my main conclusion in the post!

      • Lord

        You miss the point. We also praise and blame when we think subsidies and taxes ARE at the right level to keep them there. These aren’t just static levels. And we especially praise and blame when we want both subsidies and taxes LOWER. Better virtue than law. Better charity than taxes.

      • We also praise and blame when we think subsidies and taxes ARE at the right level to keep them there. These aren’t just static levels.

        Well, which is it? It would seem to depend on whether you want more of it at the margin.

      • Lord

        No. Some may want more, some may not. The most we can say is we don’t want less. There are other forces pushing and pulling and this is as much a case of running to stay in place.

        We may want more, but we also want lower subsidies and taxes, and our revealed preference is for the latter. It doesn’t mean we don’t want more, just that we want more for the latter, so doing the opposite of the latter for the former is a nonstarter. Call that cynical or just self interested.

  • Any proposal to spend tax money will engender coalition politics.

    You write a good blog. Does that mean I favor subsidizing it? Of course not! You’re a rightist and I’m a leftist.

    [Just a supporting example.]

    • Robert Koslover

      I don’t think Robin is a “rightist”, although he’s arguably to the right of you. Based on the sub-sample of your many comments at this blog that I have had occasion to read, I don’t think I would categorize you entirely as a “leftist” either. After all, there are very, very few topics on which I actually agree with people I consider to be “leftists,” yet I do agree with you moderately often. 🙂

  • David Condon

    Voters tend to make decisions based on a combination of selfish concerns and political identity; not higher ideals. There is also the mitigating effect of political advocates which is also mostly selfish concerns.

  • It might help if you were more concrete about the examples of praise and criticism that you have in mind. A friend giving me a birthday present? An annual donation to charity? All of these examples?

    It seems to me that these kinds of examples are signals about internal character. A friend remembering my birthday is a sign of personal loyalty and allegiance. The point of praising it, it not specifically to get more presents in the future, so subsidizing that behavior would not be effective. Social bonds are a layer orthogonal to monetary rewards. What I need to do is build trust that in future unknown conflicts, my “friend” can be trusted to “take my side”.

    Government taxation and/or subsidy would seem to defeat the purpose.

    • So you agree with “we think that the acts signal impressive or praise-worthy features, but shouldn’t be more common”

      • I don’t think that’s quite it. Yes, the acts are signalling impressive features (e.g. loyalty). However, they SHOULD be more common. Only, monetary subsidies would distort the signal and render it useless. The whole point of the signal is that you’ll do it without financial reward. (But you may do it for a praise reward, which is a collaborative signal from me about mutual loyalty.)

        Maybe you’re just saying that I don’t specifically need more presents, hence society doesn’t need “present-giving” to be more common. Sure, true enough. But I definitely want more personal loyalty towards me, which would imply more of the present-giving signal (if the character trait were more common).

        Perhaps that’s the critical distinction: I don’t (necessarily) want more of the overt action, and hence subsidizing it is counterproductive. But I do want more of the hidden trait which leads to the action, and if the trait were more widespread, then more action would be observed. It’s only an indirect signal, and so can’t be encouraged directly.

      • IMASBA

        Indeed, with charity and other acts of kindness money would defeat the purpose (and attract parasites).

      • IMASBA

        Of course you sometimes hear people advocate for subsidies in these matters but that’s usually because people don’t want the matter to be left to charity with its limited resources and fickle choice in people to help (such as your firefighter example: people didn’t want to specifically reward the kindness of volunteer firemen, they mainly wanted to have more firemen and more equal firefighter service, so not just service in areas with a lot of volunteers, and that’s why they wanted governments to get involved).

      • Perhaps that’s the critical distinction: I don’t (necessarily) want more of the overt action, and hence subsidizing it is counterproductive. But I do want more of the hidden trait which leads to the action, and if the trait were more widespread, then more action would be observed. It’s only an indirect signal, and so can’t be encouraged directly.

        This seems like a theory about why we praise impressive things: they demonstrate latent traits.

        Perhaps your disagreement, then, has to do with Robin’s observation that we often praise things in such a way as to imply we and others want more of it.

  • lump1

    Character engineering through selective praise is something we all do, and we think it’s a good thing for us to do, but this doesn’t mean we want it institutionalized.

    Don’t we think that only very few people have the *right* to try to make us better people through selective praise? Typically, you need to achieve a certain level of intimacy with someone before you may, without horrible rudeness, contribute toward engineering someone’s character through selective praise/criticism. There are other institutions that we “let in” to the circle from whom we are willing to accept praise/criticism. The church and clergy can get away with it, and our teachers can do this to us when we’re kids, though not after high school. But if we catch the government trying to shape our character with selective praise, we bristle at the idea – even if we agree that the pressure is in a positive direction. It’s just not their place to pass moral judgment on what I do. We let them tax “sins” like smoking and gas guzzling, but the mechanism here is not one of expressing approbation/disapprobation.

    Let me relate an anecdote that stayed with me, something that happened on a tram in Vienna. A grandma was berating a kid for sitting in a tram seat without removing his backpack. The boy, about 10, replied sheepishly (and correctly) that he wasn’t disturbing anyone. She retorted angrily: “Well you’re disturbing me!” even though her seat was on a different side of the tram. Here I thought “poor kid, has such a bitch for a grandma, who berates him like that in front of his friends.” But then the woman got out at the next stop, and the kid didn’t, and I realized that they weren’t related. The woman was just making a contribution to the maintenance of public morality, improving the behavior of somebody else’s kid. I was stunned. I’ve never seen anything like this in a US city. My host in Vienna was a (foreign-born) sociologist, and she assured me that this is not really weird, and that you get used to it.

    If a stranger tried this public morality lesson in NYC, DC, SF or wherever, the kid would immediately retort with “Bitch, it’s none of your business how I sit. You don’t get to tell me what to do.” And I don’t think it’s inconsistent to feel the same way about our professors, colleagues or government.They should just do their fucking jobs and stay out of our personal business.

    • IMASBA

      In addition to the intimacy level it’s simply the idea that we may not trust the government or a corporation to “correct” us like that. After all it’s not just annoying when a stranger corrects you, it’s intimidating when an organization can force you to change your behavior, especially when billionaires can simply buy influence in those organizations.

      • IMASBA

        The exception is when the government has a right to interfere because other people would be the ones picking up the pieces when you mess up. People support sin taxes because one way or another collective funds end up paying for most of the medical bills of the average person, especially outside of the US. Similarly prohibiting drunk driving is seen as ok because drunk driving presents a danger to people other than the drunk driver.

    • What this and most of the objections seem to omit is evidence that government intervention is actually constrained by the educed considerations. Of course, it’s true that some interventions are more invasive than others, but governments have subsidized projects that are invasive and refrained from subsidizing those that are noninvasive.

      Subsidizing athletic prowess would not be invasive.

      On the other hand, the government has for some time subsidized charity (through tax deductions), traditionally a personal choice. (This angers me, but few others.)

  • Robert Koslover

    Some of us don’t believe that the Government should even attempt to “subsidize” good things and “tax” bad things. Some of us, ahem, would prefer to let the free market make those funding decisions, specifically in terms of people freely choosing to spend their individual wealth on products and services as they see fit, rather than have politicians make those decisions for them. And I think it is fair to say that history repeatedly supports the notion that no government, no matter how benevolent, has ever proven itself to be better at actually choosing what individuals should buy or sell, than allowing the “invisible hand” of a free market to do its work. Praise or criticize all you want — that’s just words. Taxation for purposes of social engineering is wrong.

    • Have you looked at Thaler & Sunstein’s Nudge? Sometimes it’s not possible to be neutral, so why not at least make a good guess at creating positive outcomes?

      The government is doing social engineering all the time. Is it just any social engineering that you object to, or do you have some reason to believe that using taxation as the tool for social engineering is especially bad in some way?

    • IMASBA

      A lot of time the government just acts as an arbiter with the ability to hold groups of corporations to their own agreements. After wasting a lot of money on expensive consultants even 100% private health insurance companies would come to the conclusion that sin taxes are the simplest, most fair and least invasive (no private details have to be collected or monitored) way to deal with medical costs arising from unhealthy lifestyles, they just cannot implement it without the government being the arbitrator and enforcer, of course the food and drug industries would disagree but like Don Geddis said, the government cannot choose to be neutral here, if they do nothing they effectively choose the side of the food and drug industries. Similarly many environmental regulations are in the interest of the long term survival of businesses, they just aren’t implemented because by the free market because the businesses do not trust each other to stick to agreements and cannot enforce the on newcomers, unless the government arbitrates and enforces for them.

    • Peter David Jones

      For what value of should? One that’s objectively reflective of their well being? You’re aware that people have voluntarily take addictive and damaging substances?

    • ianam

      ” I think it is fair to say”

      You think wrong. In fact, I doubt that even you honestly believe that is “fair” to say … it’s hard to believe that you are *that* ignorant of countervailing views.

      It’s amusing how free market idiotlogues go back and forth between moral and empirical claims … none of which are valid … to rationalize the inequalities they are remunerated to promote.

  • But why do we praise things impressive? I think it serves to conceal envy.

  • ThaomasH

    Another one of those blogs that try to explain WHY X exists before showing THAT X exists.

  • simon112

    Here’s an example: water conservation.

    For some reason, in many places water is underpriced and people are criticised for wasting water. It seems that it would make much more sense to price water properly.

    If I look at Robin’s preferred explanation, it doesn’t seem to make sense in this case. Surely less wastage of underpriced resources (as would be achieved automatically with appropriate pricing) would be a good thing. Of the alternative explanations, #1, #2 (where water is not metered) and especially #6 all seem more plausible as partial explanations of water underpricing than Robin’s theory. Note that #6 could apply even where water is metered, if people consider there to be a moral imperative for water to be available at a low price. So this reduces my confidence that his explanation applies in other cases as well.

    • Ken Arromdee

      Also, water pricing takes place in the real world. Water is priced by untrustworthy agents who are going to price the water as high as they will get away with, and whose justifications for high water prices should be looked upon with suspicion.

      • ianam

        Power and its accompanying motivations is something consistently ignored by RH, who blathers about what “we” want or should do, as if there were uniformity of causal power.

    • mrBenn

      This is not always true. In some countries where water is scacre it isexpensive at least in a utility sense (children having to walk daily 10 km to carry water and missing 3 hours of schooling). Int other countries the rich have acess to water but the poor are piced out. These are exactly the countries where there is poorer health higher child mortality etc.

  • blink

    Ambiguity here is valuable. We agree that some actions are praise-worthy, but not how intensely and explicitly subsidizing those actions would require taking a stand and engender conflict. Instead, we are free to hold divergent believes — we are all above average, so to speak. By allowing different (implicit) prices, we may get more of the beneficial actions.

    Similarly, as you consider, praise is just a different type of payment. Perhaps it is less expensive to “finance” good deeds this way because those who highly value praise are also those able to perform such deeds as the lowest cost.

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  • arch1

    The Ebola-fighting efforts of groups such as Doctors Without Borders seems to be another example of something which is widely praised but under-subsidized.

  • Silent Cal

    It seems to me rather obvious that praise/criticism is both a relatively cheap affiliation mechanism and an incentivisation system with very different logistics from governmental/legal channels, and we should therefore expect to see it serve in both capacities.

    When people criticize the KKK but don’t want to ban it, I tend to believe that they really would like there to be less KKK but don’t see a good non-slippery-sloping way to ban it. But when they praise firefighters but don’t advocate raising firefighter salaries, they’re probably just invoking an applause light.

    • Ken Arromdee

      Someone who genuinely praises firefighters still doesn’t think everyone in society should become one. There is some optimal level of firefighters. So he need not believe that salaries should be raised to encourage more firefighting.

      You could, of course, argue that they should still want to raise the salary of firefighters for reasons unrelated to encouraging more firefighters, but you need to explicitly write out those reasons and argue for them, not just assert that people who praise firefighters must ipso facto agree with those reasons.

      • Silent Cal

        Hmm… you’re right to question RH’s premise, which I had accepted, that praise is a call for more of something. I’m actually having trouble thinking of clear examples of the hypothesized kind of hypocritical praise. On the other hand, surely your applause-light detector goes off at least a bit when you hear about the bravery of firefighters or other such?

    • I mentioned two kinds of “different logistics” in the post – administrative costs, and private info. Do you have others in mind?

      • Silent Cal

        It depends how broadly you construe those terms, but I’m not accusing you of missing the differences in logistics. My claim is that given that these differences do exist, we should expect to see some cases where they drive persistent praise/criticism.

        I think the criticism of offensive speech is a pretty solid example–while the exact reason people think it’s dangerous to ban but not dangerous to criticize may be worth examining and not always be consistent, I don’t doubt that people really do want less of such speech.

      • We could tax such speech more instead of banning it.

    • When people criticize the KKK but don’t want to ban it, I tend to believe that they really would like there to be less KKK but don’t see a good non-slippery-sloping way to ban it.

      This seems to fall under “we also see large opposing political coalitions who disagree with our assessment.”

      [The “assessment” not being “ban the KKK,” but “ban only the KKK.”]

    • I want there to be less KKK because people don’t want to join it, not because they are prohibited from doing so.

      • By means of prison terms (or fines or torture or whatever) rather than disapprobation, banning it decreases folks’ desire to join.

        [If you’re concern is that they not have Klannish beliefs, that’s truly different (but many would settle for less Klan). But even there, banning is likely to decrease the appeal of the beliefs too, and would certainly impede their propagation.]

      • I would rather it be an uncool thing people give little thought to than a cool underground thing you’re not allowed to do.

      • Then, what you’re saying is that what appears to be a disincentive is really an incentive. The solution would be to increase the size of the penalty.

      • The discovery that one has the sign wrong in an equation should not imply that one should increase the magnitude of the coefficient. So a change to the nature of the penalty would be in order.

  • Ken Arromdee

    And given the wide range of subsidies and taxes that exist,
    it is hard to see restrictive moral principles as being applied very

    “Wide range” is not the same thing as “there’s almost nothing it doesn’t cover”.

    I think you’ve actually stumbled onto an answer that explains a good part of it: being good or bad is not sufficient reason for the government to interfere. Most people nowadays don’t want adultery to be a crime, for instance.

  • charlie

    “Think charity, innovation, or artistic or sport achievement”
    Maybe I’m missing something–but all four of these areas are heavily subsidized in very prominent ways. The cynical example that immediately came to mind and may fit better is “teachers should be paid more.”

    • The fact that they are heavily subsidized makes the puzzle here stronger. It can’t be that we have moral qualms against subsidies, nor that admin costs are too large for subsidies to be feasible. So why then do we praise such things as if we we want more of them, when we could easily get more by increasing the subsidies?

      • charlie

        Why can’t praise function as an ongoing justification for the subsidy, without which support for the subsidy may dissipate?
        If activity X is subsidized with $100m per year, people are going to want to hear that X is a good thing for longer than just the initial year the subsidy is put in place.

      • That is possible, but that is not consistent with the praise meaning “more of this would be good.”

      • A_guy_named_Tom

        Quite often we praise things like Charity and artistic achievement *because* they aren’t fully subsidised. We praise people who make an effort without receiving financial reward much more than we would praise that same person’s effort if it had been rewarded financially.

      • ianam

        Who is this “we” that you keep idiotically referring to? The people who establish subsidies are those with *political power* … which doesn’t include me or my like-minded peers.

  • GMHowe

    Your best guess seems pretty reasonable, but I wonder, if you are being a bit cynical and stacking the deck a bit against optimistic theories.

    You list seven optimistic guesses but seem to barely give them their due before dismissing them.

    For #1 It seems possible that government might be fast in some ways while still being slow in others. Also I’m not familiar with your policy analysis market, but the swift killing of a proposal might equally be interpreted as a symptom of a slow unresponsive political system.

    On #5 you make two predictions, first that we should not care if there is more or less criticism, and second that if many people switch their position to agree with our stance that we would be horrified and reverse our own position. I presume that in the second case you are speaking of a shift of much greater magnitude than the first but it is not clear to me on what basis you are judging both predictions to fail. It seems that evidence that one prediction is false would be evidence that the other prediction is true.

    Other guesses:
    Praise and criticism are relatively cheap and easy and carry fewer risks. Subsidies cost money directly and high taxes risk creating black markets.
    Praising and complaining may have benefits (perhaps emotional or social) that are not directly related to economic policy.

  • MrBenn

    I find the debate is very blinkeredtowards an American point of view. In Europe there are wide variety of governmetnts with different tax and subsidy scheme most are democratically elected governments. In some countries there is much more tolerance for government subsidies for health, transport, higher education, charity, welfare and taxing fuel , cigarettes etc.

    The UK govenment set up the “Gift aid” systems which allows charities from benefiting by getting tax money based on a customers donation/entry fee etc. This to me seems to be exactly the kind of thing you are arguing for and arguing that voters don’t vote tolerate .

    • That actually seems to support Robin’s point, UNLESS such causes no longer receive praise now that everyone considers them suffificiently subsidized.

  • In general, something weird happens to most people’s judgments when money enters the equation. Years ago, I pinned this topic as something I don’t understand, and I haven’t re-examined it since. I’m reminded of the “intentionality” study in experimental philosophy.

    • ianam

      This is rather silly. While the answer in both cases is of course “no” strictly speaking, that’s not how people are interpreting it because it misses the point, which is about moral culpability. Change the question to “Did he intentionally do something that knowingly caused harm” in the first case and the correct answer is “yes”. Intentionally causing harm is immoral, not withstanding the fact that he didn’t intend the harm. In the second case, he doesn’t get any moral credit for good things happening when he didn’t intend them. The different answers are a result of this asymmetry: intentionally doing something that has harmful results is immoral regardless of whether those results were intended, whereas intentionally doing good is moral but intentionally doing things that knowingly cause good things to happen is not per se moral … it requires intent.

  • Let me supply an example where praise clearly wishes for an augmented supply of its subject: voting.

    It used to be more so when politics was less polarized, but even today you can hear people say and commercials repeat “Get out and vote.” There’s no questioning the impression that voting is good and more people should do it. The prevalence of this mindset was brought to my attention this election when I walked to the local library to deposit my ballot. I was amazed to see the approving looks on the faces of patrons when I put the ballot in the box. They had no way of knowing how I voted or how much effort or skill I had applied to the process.

    Yet, U.S. jurisdictions don’t reward voters monetarily (or penalize nonvoters, like some other countries). Personally (as long as the right to cast a blank ballot is retained), I’m inclined to favor subsidizing voting.

    [It would seem economically efficient in eliminating the vast sums spent on “getting out the base.” But it’s not a big issue for me, perhaps because I suspect the opposition of rival coalitions would make it impracticable.]

    Why don’t more people favor it? Why do many give the false impression that we think more voters would be better? Introspection and observation yields the following answer: the “go vote” meme is promulgated by voters, and it increases the status of voters. It isn’t about increasing the number of voters, as that would dilute the status of those who do vote.

    [In countries where a larger proportion of citizens vote than in the U.S., there is less dilution possible because of fewer nonvoters, so making voting a legal obligation raises the status of the large voting majority and incurs less opposition from the fewer nonvoters.]

    • GMHowe

      Voting may be a case where paying for it gets you more of it but reduces quality of it. Voting is supposed to reveal the preferences of the electorate and if it is not compensated then only those with sufficiently strong preferences will vote. If voting is compensated then the results will include a much greater proportion of weak or nonexistent preferences and open the system up to greater abuse.

      • The same logic applies to praising it.

      • GMHowe

        Sure, but to a much lesser extent.

        For example: If I want praise I can easily lie, but if I want monetary compensation I have to prove I voted.

        If I don’t merely want praise but I also want to deserve praise, I will actually vote and I will probably also try to make an informed decision that reflects my preferences rather than voting randomly or trolling or spoiling the ballot without consideration.

    • So you agree – they don’t really want what they say they want – more voters.

      • Yes.

      • ianam

        Who is “they”? Do you always conflate different parties with different aims? (My reading of you is that you do,)

    • ianam

      How can you go on and on about this without even mentioning voter ID laws and other contrivances, so much in the news, that are aimed at *reducing* the vote (especially of identified groups who tend to vote against those favoring these devices)?

      • Because I don’t have your exacting standards of political correctness, such that I must mention certain bete noirs.

        [Would it not be obvious to someone who wasn’t “completely incompetent” that if I favor subsidizing voting to achieve universal participation, then I’m against creating obstacles too?]

    • stargirl

      Bryan Caplan has documented thoroughly that that lower income and education voters are less able than average. Currently they also vote less often. Why would we want to encourage more voting, this is likely to even out the percentage of voters in different socio-economic classes. Which would probably make politics considerably worse.

      • Subsidies for voting, I think we agree, are only a point on a continuum of incentives/disincentives. Why don’t you favor a tax on voting? You’d get voters with even greater education and income.

        One argument for subsidizing voting simply takes to its logical conclusion the argument for democracy, that is, against oligarchy. It’s not a slam dunk argument, but aristocracies haven’t proven enlightened.

      • IMASBA

        Choosing the “best” policies is only part of democracy. Another, often overlooked, part is measuring the preferences of the population on issues where there is not a single right answer (it’s not inherently better to spend more subsidies on music than on painters, but if you know a much larger part of the population is more interested in music than in paintings you have your answer, similar situations are abundant in healthcare and economic policy). So you do want to hear as many voices as possible.

  • ianam

    ” we also see large opposing political coalitions who disagree with our assessment”
    If by “large” you mean “powerful”.

  • Gobannian

    The subsidies to charitable giving are already so huge that we have already passed the point where more would be justified. It’s just silly to argue that we should do more to subsidize everything which is “good.”

  • Wei-Hwa Huang

    I hypothesize that when people are giving that sort of praise, what they are actually praising is the outcome, not the act.

    E.g., I praise Bill Gates for donating money towards education. What I’m actually praising is the result, that education got more money. But I didn’t want to think about how Bill got that money in the first place.