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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