419 Baiting, Altruistic Punishment, and Ideology

Al Roth at the excellent Market Design points out that 419 baiting is a form of altruistic punishment. Spending your own time and resources in order to waste the time and resources of email scam artists makes it less likely that they’ll bother the rest of us. 419 baiters are voluntarily contributing to a public good. This video of Nigerian scammers performing Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch in order to obtain a scholarship from a fake production company is perhaps the pinnacle of 419 baiting, but the wooden carving of a Commodore 64 keyboard has to be close.

Altruistic punishment is extremely important for libertarians, and particularly those in favour of a completely voluntary society. Many social problems can be solved through entirely contractual arrangements among only the affected parties. Some problems, though, cannot be solved in the marketplace. For the anarchist, this makes the non-market voluntary institutions of civil society, along with nonmarket individual action, vitally important. Many social problems will require altruistic punishment. Thankfully, humans seem to have evolved such a disposition.

I think the best example of a problem which needs to be solved through altruistic punishment is child abuse within a community. Say there’s an isolated cult which likes to torture to death one in five of its children to appease a bloodthirsty God, and will violently protect their territory from interference by outsiders. The children aren’t in any sort of situation to be able to contract their way out of such a cruel fate, since they have nothing to trade (to head off any complex contractual arrangements, suppose also that the present value of their expected lifetime earnings is less than the cult is willing to expend to prevent their escape). In a world of self-interested utility-maximisers, these children would be tortured to death. In a world of sufficiently motivated altruistic punishers, they may be saved. Altruistic punishment is a good thing for the liberal.

Altruistic punishment, though, also has its dark side. In a world where people react to homosexuality or drug-use as strongly as they do to child torture; child-tortue, homosexuality, and drug-use will prove equally difficult. To have a decent voluntary society, we need the people to be willing to punish child-torturers, but leave gays and drug-users alone. Beating up gays produces a public good wrt bigots, in the same way rescuing tortured children produces a public good wrt decent people. This is not a situation which depends on political institutions or structures, but ideology. Preferences always matter.

Seasteading will make inter-community altruistic punishment more difficult by increasing the costs of monitoring and enforcement. This will be good for those who like gay sex and cocaine, but bad for those worried about child-torture. Altruistic punishment can produce great good or great evil, depending on human motivations.  For any given realistic distribution of preferences, changes in the tendency to engage in altruistic punishment will have opposing effects on the freedom of people to use drugs, and of children not to be tortured. The only way for both drug-users and torure-victims to simultaneously become more free is for the ratio of anti-drug and anti-torture sentiment to reduce. As I’ve said before, this makes ideology a crucial part of a free society. Changing ideology is not easy, of course, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

One Response

  1. […] view. I’m all for voluntary action to socially pressure parents into being more reasonable. Altruistic punishment to enforce illiberal norms can be very bad, of course, but the fact that it’s decentralised […]

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