There is a name for this
I’m reading a lot of crap about riots in my hometown. Fuck you all and your firehose of useless, self-serving, careerist punditry, your giant spotlight that cares not a whit about all the things it pretends to illuminate but will blather with equal earnestness and concern about the next thing tomorrow just like it did about the last thing yesterday and hope to get paid or praised for it all. Fuck me for adding to the noise, I barely have the stomach for it anymore.
I don’t live in Baltimore now. I’m writing this from Silicon Valley. Does that even count as being alive? I feel like I’ve been uploaded into the singularity already. I never felt that way in Baltimore. Baltimore is inevitably described by lazy writers as “gritty”. Something like that.
Anyway, I interrupt your punditry to tell you that all your commentary about riots is bullshit and confused and tendentious and fuck off. And that economists, God bless ‘em (no, not really), have a name for this.
Politically motivated riots are a form of altruistic punishment. Look it up. Altruistic punishment is a “puzzle” to the sort of economist who thinks of homo economicus maximizing her utility, and a no-brainer to the game theorist who understands humans could never have survived if we actually were the kind of creature who succumbed to every prisoners’ dilemma. Altruistic punishment is behavior that imposes costs on third parties with no benefit to the punisher, often even at great cost to the punisher. To the idiot economist, it is a lose/lose situation, such a puzzle. For the record, I’m a fan of the phenomenon.
Does that mean I’m a fan of these riots, that I condone the burning of my own hometown? Fuck you and your tendentious entrapment games and Manichean choices, your “my-team” ridiculing of people you can claim support destruction. Altruistic punishment is essential to human affairs but it is hard. It is mixed, it is complicated, it is shades of gray. It is punishment first and foremost, and punishment hurts people, that’s its point. Altruistic punishment hurts the punisher too, that’s why it’s “altruistic”. It can’t be evaluated from the perspective of winners or losers within a direct and local context. It is a form of prosocial sacrifice, like fighting and dying in a war. If you write to say “they are hurting their own communities more than anyone” you are missing the point. Altruistic punishment is not a pissing match over who loses most. The punisher disclaims personal gain, accepts loss, sometimes great loss, in the name of a perceived good or in wrathful condemnation of a perceived evil.
So you want to evaluate riots, then, as tactic. Surely these rioters can’t imagine that this — this — will reduce the severity of policing, bring jobs to the inner city, diminish the carceral state. By the way, have I told you, fuck you? Altruistic punishment is generally not tactical. Altruistic punishment is emotional. The altruism in altruistic punishment is not pure, not saintly. The soldier takes pleasure even as he takes wounds exacting revenge for a fallen comrade on another human who was not, as an individual, his friend’s killer. The looter takes a pair of shoes, because why the fuck not? If you perceive the essence of the riots in the shoes you are an idiot. Altrustic punishment is not tactical, it is emotional, and it is sometimes but not always functional. It functions, sometimes, to change expectations about what is possible or desirable or acceptable. In economist words, people’s propensity for altruistic punishment changes the expected payoffs associated with nonaltruistic behavior by those punished directly and, more importantly, by third parties who observe the unpleasantness. Changes in expected payoffs change the equilibria that ultimately prevail, in ways which may be beneficial for some groups or for “society as a whole”, however you define the welfare of that entity. Of course, there are no guarantees. Changes in expected payoffs can alter equilibria in undesirable directions as well. Drones anybody? This is a risky business.
Even if it is possible that events like rioting can do some good, surely there are better ways? Yes, surely there are. Why haven’t they happened? If you feel entitled to tut-tut the rioters, I hope you have organized against police brutality, marched all peacefully like the GandhiMartinLutherJesus you manufacture to condemn the very people whose cause those idols championed. Have you borne costs to engage politically to ensure economic security and social inclusion for all? You have you say? Well good for you, though I don’t believe you and it doesn’t matter because this isn’t about you. As a society, we have not done these things. On the contrary, we have done the opposite, we have in practical terms increased the distance between the kind of people who lobby congress or write articles and the kind of people who are forcing the Orioles to play for empty bleachers. In theory, a peaceful political process is absolutely the right way to solve the problems of brutality and exclusion. In practice, it hasn’t happened, it isn’t happening, there is no sign that it will happen. Blame the fucking victims for not producing a Dalai Lama if you want, it doesn’t matter, they don’t have one, at least not one likely to be effective, and even if they did, the limited success of the real Martin Luther Kings of the world may have had something to do with the threat of riot and rebellion, with the horde of angry sinners barely held back by those saints whom we bugged and harassed in actual practice.
So I am condoning the riots, really, right? Fuck you. Can you go to hell, really, right now? I am not condoning, I am not condemning, I don’t care if you think that’s mealy-mouthed, this isn’t about me or pissing matches within the high IQ professional idiocracy.
Riots do severe, immediate, harm, they are an escalation, they are violent, they are prima facie bad. Yet the fact that rioting sometimes happens, the uncomfortable possibility of it, has historically and may again create urgency and motivate political change that is ultimately good. Or, it might pull the velvet glove from the iron fist of our hyperstratified ever less democratic police state. That is a possibility too, though it would be costly to elites who gain real satisfaction from pretending that the society that has elevated them is reasonably just and virtuous.
We don’t know the counterfactuals. But I will say this. Although it is not thought out into policy papers, it is not tactical, it is emotional and impure and corrupt, it provokes and sustains war, and it puzzles a certain kind of economist, human affairs would be intolerable without altruistic punishment. In small matters, the fact that people will bear disproportionate costs to protest small ripoffs is essential to the integrity of everyday commerce. In larger affairs, the human propensity to altruistic punishment means we all bear costs of perceived injustice, we all have a stake in finding some mix of society and legitimating ideology under which outcomes are perceived as broadly right. We’ve been doing a bad job of that lately.
- 23-Sep-2015, 3:15 a.m. PDT: Move misplaced scare quotes: from my-team “ridiculing” to “my-team” ridiculing.