/Virtue and vice signalling, by Scott Sumner

Virtue and vice signalling, by Scott Sumner

Robert Shrimsley has an amusing piece in the Financial Times, which discusses virtue signalling:

Virtue-signalling, for those who have never felt drawn to the term, is the apparently modern crime of trying to be seen doing the right thing.

The implication is that the virtue-signaller does not really believe what they are saying but simply wishes to be admired as a good person. It is most often used against celebs who identify with more fashionable or liberal political causes such as feminism, gay rights, racial diversity or concern about climate change.

He then makes this astute observation:

Tellingly, it is never deployed by people who support those causes and who, like Extinction Rebellion in this case, might object to faux sympathisers. It is instead the insult of choice for people who don’t want to have to engage with the issue itself. In truth, what the critic dislikes is rarely the signalling; it is the virtue.

I sympathize with Shrimsley, as people often accuse me of virtue signalling because I worry about issues ranging from global warming to the rise of right-wing authoritarian nationalism.  Of course I also take lots of politically incorrect positions, such as favoring fiscal austerity, the elimination of minimum wages, etc.  But that doesn’t stop people from being convinced that my views are fake.

Here’s the amusing part:

Perhaps what is needed is a counterweight to the term: vice-signalling. . . . While lots of people walk past beggars, vice-signallers loudly declare that they never give money to the homeless because “it only encourages them”. Fair point; obviously with incentives like that all of us would quit our jobs and sit outside railway stations for some loose change and a Tesco sandwich.

While that’s not something I would “loudly declare”, at the risk of not getting the joke I’ll take the bait here.  First of all, it’s not at all clear what this insensitive person believes is “encouraged” by throwing coins into the cup:

Encourage begging?  Yes, it probably does encourage that activity.  Would you sit on the sidewalk and beg if no one gave you money?  Or would you go to a public library and sit in a comfortable chair?  (You might say I know nothing about this sort of life, which is true, but Shrimsley is inviting us to be introspective with his Tesco sandwich remark.)

Encourage drug or alcohol use?  Perhaps in some cases.

Encourage people to not work?  Perhaps in a few cases.

Encourage people to be poor?  Probably not, for the reasons provided by Shrimsley.

So perhaps he is correct, but only if you assume that “encourages them” means encourages them to be poor.  And I am not at all convinced that that is what those supposedly heartless reactionaries mean by their remark.

I’m no expert on begging; so let me ask a few politically incorrect questions:

1. Shrimsley is writing from a UK perspective.  So why doesn’t the UK government provide financial aid to the beggars, so that they don’t have to beg?  After all, the UK is a modern European welfare state, with government spending of 38% of GDP.

2. France’s government spends well over 50% of GDP.  American progressives often cite France as a model welfare state—one of the most generous.  So why is it that when I visit Paris I see beggars all over the place?  Why doesn’t the French government give them financial aid so that they don’t need to beg?

You might argue that it’s too expensive, but that doesn’t seem right.  Here’s The Economist, describing Brazil’s famous Bolsa Familia program, widely viewed as a big success:

Bolsa Família (Family Grant), which covers 14m poor households in Brazil, or roughly a third of the country’s population. Its budget amounts to 30bn reais ($7.5bn)—0.4% of gdp. In order for a family to receive the benefit, the children must attend school for at least 85% of days in a month. Parents whose children play truant first receive a warning; further absences eventually lead to payments being suspended.

Notice how small the cost, even though it covers 1/3rd of Brazil’s population.  The number of homeless in France is far smaller than 1/3rd the French population.  How much would it cost to provide aid equal to what they get from begging?

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Is it possible that the European welfare states have looked into the begging issue and discovered that simply throwing money at the problem doesn’t work?  Apparently the Brazilian government thinks that a no strings attached program “encourages” people to not attend school.  So they attach strings.

As I said, I’m no expert on begging, and thus don’t have strong opinions on the issue.  Perhaps simply throwing a few coins into the cup is in fact the optimal solution.  Being a libertarian, I have no principled objection to non-government solutions to problems.  But unless progressives are able to give me a convincing explanation for why socialist leaning governments like France apparently don’t believe that throwing money at the problem works, then I’ll continue to have a nagging feeling that incentive effects might have something to do with the problem.  Would a generous French aid program “encourage” beggars to move from London, Berlin, Prague and Rome to Paris?  Would it “encourage” drug and alcohol use?  Would financial aid to beggars with mental health issues be stolen from them by criminals?  Would generous aid to beggars discourage people from accepting unpleasant jobs?  I don’t know, but these are valid questions.

I am opposed to people trying to shut down debate with ad hominem attacks on either “virtue signalling” or “vice signalling”.  Both the left and the right do this sort of thing, and it’s not the best way to get to the truth.

PS.  I understand that the Shrimsley column was satire, and I’m not accusing him of doing this.

PPS.  The Independent reports that begging is a crime in Denmark:

A Slovakian woman is to be deported from Denmark for begging for the first time under a controversial law that criminalises the practice.

Judges at the City Court of Copenhagen sentenced the woman to 40 days in prison on Tuesday, after which she will be expelled from the country.

Isn’t Denmark one of those generous welfares states cited by progressives such as Bernie Sanders?  So what caused the Danes to criminalize begging?