Altruistic punishment

Steve Randy Waldman on the rioting in Baltimore.

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.

Economists, game theorists, and psychologists come up with some of the most elegant names for various phenomena. I'd never heard of altruistic punishment, but I'll never forget it now. That is, sometimes when you bear the costs of the world unjustly, it can feel like the only way to set things right is to force a more even distribution of the costs across the population.