Inconsistent Paternalism

All but one US state requires drivers to wear seat belts, and every airline flight must be delayed so all passengers can hear a safety lecture, but BASE jumping is widely allowed and terribly dangerous:

Veterans of BASE jumping — an acronym that stands for parachute free falls from buildings, antennae, spans or earth — call their sport the most dangerous in the world, with only 1,200 experienced jumpers and at least 115 fatalities. … BASE jumping is illegal in parts of the world and across the East Coast … Right now, a BASE jumper dies somewhere in the world about once every three weeks.

This Washington Post article mentions the danger but is not particularly disapproving, a vastly different tone I’m sure than if they were reporting on other nations without seat belt laws.  Why the vastly different treatment?

My best explanation is social status: we are much more paternalistic toward the low in status.  We allow rich people to invest in most anything they like, but limit poor people to investments approved by regulators, and we are far more concerned about alcohol and illegal drug use by the poor than the rich, even though both groups use them at similar rates.  An inner city activity with a similar mortality rate to BASE jumping would be illegal so fast it would make your head spin.

Added: To see what best explains paternalism, we should create a dataset of behaviors, where we code the degree of paternalism regarding those behaviors, and other possible explanatory features of those behaviors, so we can systematically check for patterns.  Any grad student interested in trying this?

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  • Jess Riedel

    Well, the seat belt law is a qualitatively different situation than base jumping for two reasons:

    (1) There are many, many more drivers. Governments might not spend legistlative time regulating a tiny niche sport, but they might be pressured to act by the huge number of annual road deaths.

    (2) Through automotive insurance, the cost of road accidents is distributed across the population. Base jumpers, on the other hand, bear the full weight of their accidents. This is because life insurance policies, which will pay out in the case of a base jumper’s death, can include the added cost based on a persons lifestyle. In contrast, automotive insurers have no way tell if you wear your seatbelt (i.e. it’s more difficult to hide the fact that you participate in dangerous sports from your insurance company than it is the fact that you don’t wear you seatbelt). Thus, seat belt laws can be justified as the government correcting a market failure: asymmetric information.

    Explanation (1) still allows that the paternalism is inconsistent. It just argues that this is *not* because legistlators don’t like the poor. Explanation (2) argues that that the paternalism is not inconsistent. However, I think history shows that explanation (1) is closer to reality, governments being imperfect institutions.

    If you want to argue for the thesis that inconsistent paternalism is due to social status, you’re going to need *a lot* more data/examples/evidence. There are a million alternative hypotheses.

  • http://yorkshire-ranter.blogspot.com/ Alex

    And further, as with all glibertarian arguments about seat belts, speed limits &c, it ignores the fact that the majority of people in cars are not driving and therefore don’t “choose” anything about the risk of an accident.

  • outeast

    Alex, I’m not sure that argument is especially relevant to seat belts specifically. Are many pedestrians killed by projectile non-seatbelt-wearers?

    I’d go along with Jess here, but adding that the number of lives saved by seatbelt legislation, and the extent of insurance and/or healthcare savings nationally, far outweigh the limited intrusion of requiring people to undergo the negligible inconvenience of having to wear a seatbelt when driving (though that’s a calculation that those on the torture side of the specks debate will doubtless reject). OTOH, there is the argument that leaving it up to driver choice might benefit the nation through inculcating a culling of idiots and libertarians…

  • Recovering irrationalist

    (though that’s a calculation that those on the torture side of the specks debate will doubtless reject).

    That would make sense… if the chance of crashing was 1 in 3^^^3. :-p

  • Caledonian

    it ignores the fact that the majority of people in cars are not driving and therefore don’t “choose” anything about the risk of an accident

    They choose to get in the car with the driver, yes?

    OTOH, there is the argument that leaving it up to driver choice might benefit the nation through inculcating a culling of idiots and libertarians…

    I offer an alternative – craft an unenforcable law that leads to a significantly higher risk of death, and cull the nation of conformists and authoritarians.

  • zzz

    i.e. it’s more difficult to hide the fact that you participate in dangerous sports from your insurance company than it is the fact that you don’t wear you seatbelt

    Irrelevant. Your insurance company can still require you to wear a seatbelt as a matter of contract: enforcing such voluntary agreements would not be more difficult than enforcing existing seatbelt laws. (If anything, it would be easier: e.g. automakers could certify that their cars will not start unless the driver is wearing seatbelts properly, while government enforcement of such a regulation would pose serious concerns)

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Jess, it is possible for insurance to be conditional on seat belts – if you have an accident where you weren’t wearing your seat belt, they don’t pay.

    Alex, even passengers can choose whether to wear a seat belt.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    We allow rich people to invest in most anything they like, but limit poor people to investments approved by regulators, and we are far more concerned about alcohol and illegal drug use by the poor than the rich, even though both groups use them at similar rates. An inner city activity with a similar mortality rate to BASE jumping would be illegal so fast it would make your head spin.

    Even if true, it doesn’t mean the paternalism is inconsistent. If the point of paternalism is to reduce negative consequences to individuals by restricting their choice, then the rich are low priority: they are well-off enough to deal with most of the consequences of their actions, at low relative costs to themselves. You can make that argument very strongly with Investment, for instance (though not with BASE).

    If the paternalism is intended to reduce negative consequences to individuals by restricting other people’s choices (mandatory third party insurance), then the rich are very high priority, as their choices affect more people. In that optic of paternalism, worrying about the poor is inconsistent.

  • http://www.google.com

    And further, as with all glibertarian arguments about seat belts, speed limits &c, it ignores the fact that the majority of people in cars are not driving and therefore don’t “choose” anything about the risk of an accident.

    Not sure the “glibertarian” pejorative adds anything here.

    Second, I find your supposed “fact” that the majority of people in cars are not driving to be a very dubious claim. The average passengers per car estimates I’ve seen hover around 1.3, for example this wikipedia article which references a transportation survey in Canada. In order for your statement to be true, that average number would have to be above 2, which is almost certainly false. Just eyeball the local traffic where you live, if you find an average above 2 I’ll be amazed.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Is the inconsistency of paternalism really a good way to look at this issue? If we assume that governments do enjoy some paternalistic powers, with relatively broad support, then more relevant guide to whether particular paternalisms are applied would be:
    1) Is the issue large scale and important?
    2) Is the paternalistic intervention effective?
    3) Is the paternalistic intervention cheap (including enforcement costs)?
    4) Are major rights or values compromised by the intervention (more than for other, generally accepted interventions)?
    5) Are there strong political groups opposed to the intervention?
    6) Is the intervention a traditional government duty, or a new idea?

    I think that looking at these factors is more relevant than some idealized notion of consistency. If we find potentially paternalistic situations that are equivalent in the above sense, but treated differently, then we should worry about consistency.

    To summaries: I think consistency is a weak test to compare paternalistic interventions, and should only be used if other measures do not distinguish.

  • Anonymous

    I think seat belts should be optional, but if you fail to use them then you should have to pay for the hospital visits entirely yourself, no assistance from either the government or your private insurer if you have one. This way, libertarians get to take dumb risks without “the man” holding them down, and sane people get lower health insurance premiums. Everyone wins!

  • Moses

    The costs on society from not wearing seatbelts are much higher than those from basejumping, and the affects on others are greater. A failed jump kills the jumper, period.

    The worst results of not wearing belts are the greater incidence of injuries rather than deaths. Injuries may affect people for life, and require massive healthcare. It’s an economic decision.

    I also query your assumption about the wealth of jumpers. The ones I have met have been youngish and definitely not rich. They’re not underclass, but they’re not gilded youth either.

  • josh

    I don’t want to have to go through the feelings of guilt (and probable law suits) that would result if somebody dies from an accident I caused, even if it is their own fault for not wearing a seat belt. I certainly wouldn’t want to have to face the person’s family. I’m not sure if this justifies the law or not.

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    Could we please move past the arguments for and against belts, or even for and against paternalism in general? The point here is inconsistent paternalism, not whether belt laws are a good idea.

    An inner city activity with a similar mortality rate to BASE jumping would be illegal so fast it would make your head spin.

    I find this unlikely. An inner city activity with one death in the world every three weeks would never be noticed. That is 17 deaths per year in the world. Vending machines and coconuts must kill more people than that.

    That is not the rate you mean, I presume; rather, 17/year out of “1,200 experienced jumpers.” That’s pretty bad, over 1% per year. It’s not as bad as your risk of dying as president, but still bad. Is it noticable without its participants’ intentionally advertising it? Can you name any inner city activity with 1,200 participants worldwide?

    Meanwhile, we do have proposed legislation/regulations about electric door windows, which kill 4 children/year (United States only) the last time I checked. Does that cut across class lines? I must imagine that “death due to optional car features” is a greater problem for the wealthy, even if electronic windows are not terribly expensive.

  • Floccina

    “We allow rich people to invest in most anything they like, but limit poor people to investments approved by regulators, and we are far more concerned about alcohol and illegal drug use by the poor than the rich, even though both groups use them at similar rates. An inner city activity with a similar mortality rate to BASE jumping would be illegal so fast it would make your head spin.”

    What about state lotteries?

  • Floccina

    “every airline flight must be delayed so all passengers can hear a safety lecture”

    Do poor people fly?

    How much does the lecture help? Flying is so safe I do not see the point if the safety lecture. I have long thought it to be a waste.

  • douglas

    I see the inconsistent paternalism.
    The definition of “good works” is “helping those less fortunate”, is it not? Is that the underlying bias?

  • http://www.google.com

    A failed jump kills the jumper, period.

    No, many failed jumps result in injuries, often disabling ones. There are many degrees of failure, such as chute partially opens, chute lines are tangled, jumper hits a glancing blow on the bridge on the way down, jumper lands on rocks and breaks ankles, etc.

  • Paul Gowder

    I’m really surprised that nobody has mentioned the obvious distinction. BASE jumping is a flagrantly dangerous, unusual activity. Anyone engaging in it has simply got to know that they’re staring death RIGHT IN THE FACE. People tend to be a lot more casual about driving, etc. With the stupid jumping, the salience of possible death is vastly higher, so the need for gov’t intervention to make sure people take care is lower.

  • Constant

    Frankly, all the defenses so far strike me as rationalizations, rather half-baked ones at that.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Paul Gowder and Jess Reidel seem to have the best explanations, much better than the original socal-status theory. Rich people have to obey the same seatbelt laws and endure safety lectures just like poor people, unless they are rich enough to have a private jet.

    People travel because they want to go somewhere, not because they want to stare death in the face, and regulation is designed to reduce side-risks. BASE jumping is an entirely optional activity. You can think of regulation as an effort to remove risk and uncertainty from everyday transactions. The seatbelt-wearing laws I could live without, but I’m grateful for the regulations that mandate that the seatbelts exist, because it means I don’t have to think about whether they are there or not if I am buying a car or accepting a ride in someone else’s car. When we used to have a functioning CPSC, we didn’t have to put effort into worrying about whether there was lead in toys we bought for our children. Etc.

    Regulations reduce transaction costs. They are designed to deal with involuntary rather than voluntary risks.

  • Constant

    It’s like nobody ever heard of James Buchanan. Or Bryan Caplan for that matter. People are just assuming that government does what’s best, that voter decisions are best, and then finding some rationale to demonstrate the perfection of the result.

    BASE jumping is an entirely optional activity.

    Like cocaine use. That’s why cocaine use is completely legal. Oh, wait. Quick, somebody rationalize that away.

  • poke

    These sorts of laws tend to be the result of grass roots movements so I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re inconsistent. I think your analysis is probably wrong; there are examples of marginal sports that have succumb to paternalistic laws. One example is quad bikes, which, after some high profile accidents involving children, were subject to various restrictions and required to display warning labels. Another is jet skis, which were required to have certain safety features. There’s probably many more examples. Usually these laws are a response to parents of dead or injured children protesting.

    BASE jumping itself is an illegal sport. It might be legal to jump off certain structures but the sports culture also involves a lot of breaking and entering and jumping off things for which they do not have permission. I doubt the claimed high mortality rate is at the legal, arranged jumps off structures like bridges, it probably has more to do with their illegal activities.

  • Tim

    Has anyone mentioned that fact that not wearing a seatbelt affects only the driver/passenger? Whether the driver is wearing a seatbelt or not has no bearing on whether he/she is going to get into an accident. I would argue therefore that seatbelt regulation has nothing to do with negative externalities.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Sorry, where did I or anyone else say that all government regulations were beneficial, rational, or consistent, let alone perfect?

    Isn’t this discussion infested with economists? Aren’t there perfectly reasonable economic justifications for various government regulation? Aren’t there entire subfields and journals dedicated to these issues? Or is this just a place for standard braindead libertarian whining?

    Robin has pre-biased the discussion by labelling regulation as “paternalism”. I wouldn’t mind seeing an unbiased discussion of the pros and cons of various govt regulation, but it won’t happen if everyone brings their ideological predispositions and doesn’t examine them.

    Drug laws are notoriously irrational, and I don’t in general defend them. But highly addictive drugs pose a challenge to individual choice models of human action. Addicts might start out voluntarily assuming risks but find themselves with much less autonomy than they started with. There are plausible economic arguments to be made for government intervention in this area based on people’s very poor ability to make the calculation between short-term pleasure and long term costs.

    I wonder what results you would get if you surveyed cocaine and heroin addicts and asked them if they would have preferred that government regulation of these substances had been more effective, so that they would not have had access to them when they were starting out.

    The larger point is that it is not always beneficial to have more choices.

  • savagehenry

    Paul Gowder basically gives the first explanation that came to my mind.

    When you jump off a thousand foot cliff you KNOW there is an obvious risk of death. You have to go well out of your way to engage in such an activity, which is why I would suspect so few people do it (both those aspects combined I mean). Whereas with driving, there is a risk of death, but many people go many long years without witnessing or being part of a fatal accident. And, driving is a part of our every day experience. You don’t have to go far out of your way to drive (for your typical person a drivers license and a car purchase don’t necessarily require an extreme amount of effort). If I wanted to I could go out to the front of my house and get in my car and drive around till I run out of gas on a whim. I could not however, without serious mental (and financial) effort go jump off a thousand foot cliff or building.

    So if there is inconsistent paternalism I think that it has to do with the ease and prevalence of the activities. Obscure, hard to get into activities with high fatality rates are less of a target for paternalism, but everyday activities that any (and nearly all) moron(s) can take part in are highly subject to government intervention.

    I also agree this topic should be limited to why there are apparent inconsistencies in paternalism (or if there even are) and not whether or not it is a good or bad thing that paternalism exists because we could argue about that until our fingers are worn down to nubs.

  • http://julesandjames.blogspot.com/ James Annan

    I’m surprised to have seen no mention of the Isles report. Around the time that seatbelt laws were being proposed in the UK, the Govt commissioned this report to investigate the effect. The conclusion was that risk compensation (riskier behaviour by drivers) resulted in substantially increased hazard for those outside the cars, eg pedestrians and cyclists, and essentially no gains overall.

    Of course, the report was suppressed and the legislation passed.

    These are the first two google hits I found:

    http://john-adams.co.uk/2007/01/04/seat-belt-legislation-and-the-isles-report/
    http://www.geocities.com/galwaycyclist/info/seatbelts.html

  • http://profile.typekey.com/WaltFrench/ WaltFrench

    There are few BASE jumpers who have any uncertainty about the risks entailed; most probably seek out the sport BECAUSE of them. However, when I give my neighbor’s daughter a ride to school, she has no way of appreciating the risk of same — heck, I’m a risk manager and don’t know what the odds are. Anyway, the information contained in laws helps make for a more efficient market.

    A second concern, not addressed by insurance, is the social contract: a state would be criminally inhuman if it did not care for victims of accidents regardless of whether they had insurance coverage; few of us would want to live in a world where the iron hand of fate was not softened by human care for our neighbors (“fellow man”). Those who are so unlucky as to be hurt can count on getting some help regardless as to whether they could afford insurance. Seat belt laws reduce the cost to the state of providing that safety net, at a truly trivial cost to the Libertarians’ right to take stupid chances with no thrill attached. All real issues are about which rights are more important, and I’m sure most are quite happy to have that tradeoff.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    Robin has pre-biased the discussion by labelling regulation as “paternalism”.
    I think David J. Balan had no problem with the term when debating Hanson. The inventors of “libertarian paternalism” (really paternalists trying to argue with libertarians) didn’t mind the term. I think it’s value neutral.

    Anyway, the information contained in laws helps make for a more efficient market.
    Really? Don’t you think prediction markets would do a better job of that? How much information do legislators have?

    a state would be criminally inhuman
    Is this the case even for people who are not citizens? I hate to get Will-Wilkinsonian here, but how does an artificial border creates a moral distinction? If it is really criminally inhuman, would doing so necessitate not only compensatory but punitive damages? And are you sure seatbelt laws lead to lower state expenditures? Some data might be in order. A lot of people think that the uninsured are a drain on the healthcare system but it turns out the larger amounts paid compared to those with insurance outweighs those that receive free treatment (it might sound hypocritical of me, but I’ll have to go find that link and post it later).

  • Floccina

    Is it possible that the law is set not with the poor in mind but that enforcement is targeted at the poor because we do not like the poor? We do not like how poor people’s neighborhoods look. We do not like how they live. Democrats think that they can make the poor live and look like middleclass people by giving them money. Republicans think that they can make the poor live and look like middleclass people by giving them religion. Both would be very happy if they just disappeared. Could it be that the police just despise the poor? Could it be that the Paternalism is only in the enforcement not in the making of the laws?

  • http://mattheath.wordpress.com Matt Heath

    The difference in scale does seem to matter. There are going to be costs that just don’t scale with it, such as the cost of drafting and passing a law.

  • savagehenry

    Floccina, I think all of the things you mentioned, while possible, would (and should) require an extreme amount of evidence for us to be able to make such a broad generalization. While I certainly hope the police don’t despise the poor, and it is possible they do (or that some do rather), the explanation for inconsistent enforcement seems come from elsewhere (like the laws themselves or the fact that poor people are more likely to commit certain crimes and are also more likely to live in the same area as other poor people), not hatred.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    Well, gosh, Robin. BASE jumping is illegal everywhere on the East Coast, except for one day per year at one site in West Virginia, which also happens to be a big tourist draw, given it is the highest bridge of its sort anywhere in the world. And, West Virginia is a poor state out to attract tourists, however. So, to the extent there is any inconsistency, it is on the part of West Virginia. But, we know they are poor and desperate for tourist cash, plus being hillbilly rednecks into all kinds a weird stuff an varmint chasin’ an other reckless good for nothin’ stuff after all that moonshahne…

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    Barkley, Robin said there is only one state that does not require seatbelts, while there are many states that are not on the East Coast. The inconsistency is in the states which are not on the East Coast and allow BASE jumping but prohibit driving without a seatbelt.