Bryan Caplan  

The Government of Bad Manners

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We teach children to say "Thank you" when others help them - even if the others are socially expected to help them.

We teach children to say "I'm sorry" when they've needlessly harmed others - even if the harm was done unintentionally or in good faith.

So riddle me this:

1. Why doesn't the IRS send thank you notes to taxpayers - especially the biggest taxpayers?

2. Why don't lawmaking bodies apologize to marijuana users - not to mention anyone who served jail time for a marijuana offense - when they decriminalize marijuana?

Whether or not you've got an explanation, feel free to add other examples of governments' bad manners in the comments...

HT: Partly inspired by a conversation with Miles Kimball




COMMENTS (25 to date)
cole writes:

I think a thank you letter from the IRS would not be well received.

But if they were going to start this policy, maybe they could add a 'please' to court summons, a 'thank you' when signing up for the draft, and a sorry to young people for deficit spending.

Pajser writes:

Why doesn't the IRS send thank you notes to taxpayers - especially the biggest taxpayers? Because it is not practical. Private banks also do not thank me every month when they receive my monthly loan payment.

Why don't lawmaking bodies apologize to marijuana users - ... - when they decriminalize marijuana? Because apologize for past deeds - if one's rights were not broken - is unusual. If car company reduces the price of cars, it doesn't apologize to those who bought the same cars for a higher price.

Thomas writes:

A "thank you" from IRS would seem strange as it would be like me thanking myself for saving or contributing to charity.

John Smith writes:

2) Because these people still committed actions that were crimes at the time they committed them.

1) My country, Singapore, does send a thank you as part of the bill. It says something like thank you for contributing towards nation-building...

Jody writes:

A thank you would be less jarring than the fact that the IRS refers to you as their "customer" when you call them.

What are they selling? Not going to jail? Not having your assets seized?

Quasi-related: The IRS did, however, have the time to send me a letter this week demanding payment (plus interest and penalties) for the balance of my 2014 taxes (I made estimated payments during the year). Except that the check was submitted with the tax filing on the 15th and had cleared my account before the letter went out and this was clearly recorded in their system.

In my business, when a vendor erroneously invoices me, they apologize. No apology from the IRS for wasting an hour of my day was forthcoming.

I believe the root cause of the difference is that one set of transactions is coerced (government) and the other is freely entered. When someone has the choice to continue to do business with you, then there is value in expressing gratitude for their continued business.

More broadly, I think the lack of expressed gratitude and / or regret is indicative that the US government a) does not view itself as the servant of the citizenry (the relationship is inverted), b) does not care to even keep up the pretense.

emerich writes:

Simple. Government is a monopolist and doesn't need to think about customer service.

Scott M. writes:

When the gov't decriminalizes MJ, like in CO, do they commute sentences for people currently serving time for possession?

Nathan W writes:

If it weren't for the fact that it would make it just that much more difficult to get these silly laws removed, I would be in favour of class action by all parties having been harmed by anti-marijuana laws (jail time, say, but not for lost career opportunities after being discouraged from many jobs due to a record), to ask for compensation for their days, months and years wrongfully imprisoned, etc.

NZ writes:

The IRS does indeed say thank you after certain online interactions.

Anyway, part of what government is useful for is sending general messages that would be impolite to send interpersonally.

To give a kind of inverted example, it would be rude for me to just walk up to a gay couple and say "If you guys want to live together, share a bank account, and adopt kids, more power to you, but don't call your union 'marriage' because it isn't one."

But the government can send this message to them in a general way by simply defining marriage as between one man and one woman. So government sends them the same message I do but without me having to go and be rude to them. And that's something I very much appreciate.

Matt Smith writes:

This is a good point. Though property taxes alone, I send about 250/month to the local public school. Not only do they not thank me, they are always telling me it is not enough.

Kevin L writes:

To (1) I see a couple of options:

- Implicit collectivism. You don't thank yourself for feeding yourself.

- Coercion. If I thanked someone after forcing them to give me the contents of their purse under pain of violent retribution, I might be mentally disturbed.

- Government as owner of all goods (on behalf of society). I don't necessarliy thank a neighbor for ceasing his encroaching on my property.

For (2) I have a pretty good reason why I wouldn't feel compelled to offer an apology if I were one of said lawmakers: I would rightly recognize that I was not the one who passed the original prohibition, nor did I directly aid in its enforcement. If only lawmakers would apply that to other issues (race relations, for example).

Realism writes:

In most cases, possessing marijuana without intent to sell is a sub-$100 ticket, and it's often an infraction that doesn't even go on one's record. I personally know people who have had zero penalty for having been caught possessing marijuana. Serious jail time for mere possession of marijuana without intent to sell is a myth.

Cultivation and sale is another story, as is possession of other drugs. But is there evidence that otherwise innocent marijuana consumers are getting stiff sentences these days?

Sieben writes:

It comes down to authority. Children don't have authority (or anything, really) and have to justify their existence by continued self-abasement.

But the government is on top of the hill and we are all ants. Especially those greedy rich people or underemployed drug-using hooligans. None of that for me - thanks! I prefer suburbia. Isn't healthcare expensive?

ColoComment writes:

I'd much rather IRS made an effort to fire its tax-cheating, pron-watching employees, and clean up its politically-biased tax-exemption evaluations, than spend time and money sending me a "thank you" for what I consider my citizen's duty to support my government's functions.

It's a bureaucracy, for heaven's sake, not a goods/services provider competing for customers or a charity soliciting contributions.

Jon Murphy writes:

Private banks also do not thank me every month when they receive my monthly loan payment.

Really? Yours don't? That's surprising to me. Mine do. Whenever I get my credit card statement or car loan payment coupon, there is usually something in there along the lines of "Thank you for being our customer" or "thank you for choosing our bank to serve you."

Because apologize for past deeds - if one's rights were not broken - is unusual.

How is throwing someone in prison for a non-crime not breaking their rights?

Capt. J Parker writes:

emerich writes:

Simple. Government is a monopolist and doesn't need to think about customer service.

Nailed it. +1

Seth writes:

Likewise, folks who receive gov't aid should be expected to say thanks to fellow taxpayers.

Brian writes:

The point of saying thank you or sorry, as a social convention, is to ensure that they know that you know that they helped you (or that you wronged them). It is, in other words, a signal that helps maintain reciprocity. The government, acting through coercion, has no need for reciprocity.

Colin Fraizer writes:

What's the deal with Cafe Hayek? Is it some sort of DDOS attack or just a bad provider?

Russ Roberts writes:

Colin Frazier,

We are not sure of the exact problem but we expect to be up and running today. If not today, soon. Thanks for the concern.

vikingvista writes:

So muggers say "thank you" when you hand over your wallet?

Stephen Dawson writes:

Kind of related, here in Australia if you receive mail from the Department of Social Security that requires a response, a reply paid envelope is included. If you receive mail from the Australian Taxation Office that requires a response, the included addressed envelope bears a nice little box in the corner showing you where to affix your stamp.

Floccina writes:

Maybe they could start with a letter telling us about how much taxes we all paid including FICA and matching FICA. Property taxes and an estimate of sales and corporate taxes etc.

Floccina writes:

@Realism I think selling marijuana to willing customers is no more offensive than using it. It is very tempting for a young man to sell it.

Fred Anderson writes:

I think that, to some degree, it is merely part of the general coarsening of society.
I have a Great Recession graduate who is still looking for a full-time job. It is rare for most or our large organizations to even acknowledge receipt of an application. But how much could a form-letter postcard cost? And it is only slightly less rare for them to ever tell you what became your case -- even after two invited interviews at their headquarters; they simply leave you twisting in the wind.
I suppose my "offering" is "but, everybody does it."

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