Regulatory Bias

Restaurants are held to a higher standards of food preparation than individuals. Few rules constrain your holiday meal for twenty, but if you served ten folks for lunch in a tiny diner, a huge rule book applies.

In Europe, firms are also held to a higher privacy standards than individuals. Firms must be careful to store your emails to them very carefully, to ensure a very low risk they might be stolen. But individuals can be very sloppy in how they store emails.

There are many such apparent regulatory “biases,” i.e., ways that regulations hold some things to higher standards than others, even when the relevant consequences seem similar. For example we seem to prefer:

  • Individuals over firms
  • Non-money over money exchange.
  • Natural over artificial chemicals
  • Old over new practices
  • Human over machine control
  • Locals over foreigners
  • Non- over for-profit organizations.
  • What else?

Now I’m sure clever folks can think up justifications for such preferences. But as with the common preference to redistribute money but not grades, I expect few folks could quickly come up with those reasons, even though most embrace such preferences. This again suggests that the clever reasons some can offer are not the main reasons most folks support such biases. And the obvious reasons that might drive most folks to support such biases do not suggest these are biases worth keeping.

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  • lukas

    Religious over non-religious associations is another biggie.

    • lukas

      And, of course, “non-profit” over “for-profit” organisations.

  • Benquo

    I don’t think this one is all that tricky. We are willing to allow more freedom in more personal or informal, high-touch situations, & from people we trust. If someone is familiar and we are likely to see them again we don’t feel the need for as many safeguards. The lower regulation for “natural” chemicals is similar, as chemicals that are already around are familiar, so presumably if they’re risky we’re already familiar with the risks.

    On the other hand, we are less trusting of large or formal institutions, strangers, & arms-length market transactions.

    Of course this prejudice is not 100% justified. Big name brands also have a lot at stake in getting things like product safety right, for example, especially now that word spreads fast. But I think this familiarity heuristic is still mostly pretty adaptive in day-to-day life.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      What, exactly, does “formal” mean here? At least one significant aspect of many “formal” relationships is that they are regulated. So to say that a relationship is regulated because it is formal is, to at least some extent, to beg the question. Why is that relationship considered to be formal?

      If someone is familiar and we are likely to see them again we don’t feel the need for as many safeguards.

      But corporations are familiar (at least in one sense of the word), and we are certainly likely to see one again, since they are pretty stable features of the environment.

      • Lord

        In this case it is usually the corporation favoring the regulation to establish their own credibility and limit unscrupulous competition.

  • Psychohistorian

    While you do have the occasional insightful post, roughly 90% of these “deep” quandaries can be answered with: “Cost/Benefit” and no further thought. I don’t think you need to be particularly clever to come up with that justification.

    How are you going to enforce my email keeping practices? How are you going to regulate my kitchen when I serve guests? When you hear hoofbeats, try not to immediately think of hypocritical, rule-dodging zebras.

  • as

    Economic system prefers companies to individuals.

  • Michael Kirkland

    It just comes down to money.

    The diner takes in revenue from every customer. Asking them to spend some of that intake serving safety regulations does not seem unreasonable. In that light, there is no bias against the dinner party; they are not expected to generate any revenue, so any fraction the might be asked to spend on regulation would work out to zero anyway.

  • http://modeledbehavior.com Karl Smith

    Now I’m sure clever folks can think up justifications for such preferences. But as with the common preference to redistribute money but not grades, I expect few folks could quickly come up with those reasons, even though most embrace such preferences. This again suggests that the clever reasons some can offer are not the main reasons most folks support such biases. And the obvious reasons that might drive most folks to support such biases do not suggest these are biases worth keeping.

    I want to push back against this somewhat. It could be that the clever reason is just an ex ante justification of a bias rooted in things that are no longer useful.

    However, it could also be that the bias is generated by something worth keeping and that one has to be clever to uncover what that is.

    It would seem to me that this is why having clever but generally applicable explanations is compelling. An ad hoc explanation seems more likely to be simply a justification, but a rule that justifies a lot of biases might mean that there is a good reason for having these leanings.

  • ben

    i don’t think we favour machine over human control. a lot of legal rules favour machine control because machines can’t be negligent. if you have a machine that causes an injury every 1/100,000 hours because it is impossible to make a perfect machine this is much better than a human that is causing an injury every 1/100,000 hours because they were sleepy/drunk/not following safety procedures.

    • Nikki Olson

      We hold machines to higher controls because we can (at least for now). Robot ethics, if anything like animal ethics movements, will attempt to change this becasue they will see it as a bias.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Since you didn’t address any of the manifest problems with your earlier post that you link to hear, why should anyone bother to take you seriously here?

    The differences between a restaurant and a dinner party are completely obvious (to anyone not playing games) as the differences between redistribution of money and grades.

    The fact that people can’t always articulate those differences means nothing — that’s why we have social institutions with their own rules, like “businesses” or “dinner parties”, so people don’t have to be continually thinking about justifications for the way things are. If you want to alter or abolish these institutions for some reason, then just say so and give some good reasons, stop these pretend-ignorant games.

    • lemmy caution

      I agree. Practices can have unforseen consequences. It takes time to work out the kinks.

      These conventions are not set in stone either. Think about test tube babies. When that turned out to be useful, people stopped freaking out about it.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      The differences between a restaurant and a dinner party are completely obvious (to anyone not playing games) as the differences between redistribution of money and grades.

      I agree that the difference between money and grade redistribution is obvious. Robin may be right that many people naively oppose grade redistribution for the same reason that rich people oppose money redistribution. But the fact remains that these things serve very different purposes.

      Nonetheless, the relevant difference between a restaurant and a dinner party is not as obvious to me as it seems to be to you. Could you elaborate?

      • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

        Well, for one, at a dinner party you generally are not presented with a check after eating. Eating in a restaurant is a business transaction; a dinner party is a gift transaction. How’s that for a starter?

      • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas Barta

        mtraven, Robin and Tyrrell were asking for a relevant difference — that is, something that is different between the cases and justifies differential treatment.

        The fact that something “is a gift transaction” is not a very helpful answer. You might as well respond that, “Dinner parties are called ‘dinner parties’, while diners are called ‘diners’. OBVIOUSLY, it thereby follows that handling food without washing your hands should be legal in one case but not the other! Look at the names, man!”

        Also:

        If you want to alter or abolish these institutions for some reason, then just say so and give some good reasons, stop these pretend-ignorant games.

        The fact that the treatment of two cases is inconsistent is his reason! Ball’s back in your court!

      • Khoth

        More than one person in the thread has already given a relevant difference.

    • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

      Sorry, if you want a justification from first principles you have to tell me what principles you want to start from. In the meantime, I and everybody else will muddle along with the squishy, unprincipled categories dictated by custom, law, and human nature. It’s just a fact that people treat monetary transactions differently than gift transactions. I suppose you could reach back into evolutionary psychology and anthropology and elsewhere for reasons why that is, but my point is that you don’t have to.

      • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas Barta

        I accept that gift transactions are not identical to monetary transactions.

        I accept that society has treated them differently.

        I accept that you can come up with a long list of differences, and pressure other commenters to nod their heads that yeah, man, it *totally* matters that they have different names.

        But that’s still not responsive to the question you’re being asked. You need to show why I should care about the differences you bring up in this context, to the point that it makes sense that they’d be treated differently. See, mtraven, anyone can come up with superficial differences all day. Until you answer the question that’s actually being asked, you’re not being any more helpful than my answer that “The names are different.”

        We already know about the squishiness you described; the challenge is to go just a li’l deeper and see if there’s any actual sensible regularity to it, or just the kind of bias Robin describes. In any case, “it’s complicated” isn’t an answer.

        I agree this kind of thought is not for everyone.

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        One relevant difference is simply that the prospects for scaling up are much more plausible for a commercial venture, as are the prospects for damage if the venture does something risky. A dinner party for a dozen guests, personally prepared by the host, is unlikely to be followed by one for a thousand. In contrast, if DinnerCorp is serving a dozen customers one year, it is quite plausible that it will be serving a thousand in a few years. By the same token, its potential number of servings of food poisoning are correspondingly higher. Potential for growth matters, and merits increased scrutiny.

      • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

        I suggest that if you want a discussion you drop the patronizing tone and try to understand what I said.

        In any case, you are wrong to label the difference as one of “different names”. My point is that these are different real categories. Whether that difference is justifiable from some abstract principle or not, nobody has a problem confusing eating in a restaurant with attending a dinner party thrown by a friend. If you whip out your Amex card at the latter event, you probably won’t be asked back. Although come to think of it, there is a branch of sociology that specializes in doing exactly that and documenting the resulting confusion.

      • Tyrrell McAllister

        Jeffrey Soreff:

        if DinnerCorp is serving a dozen customers one year, it is quite plausible that it will be serving a thousand in a few years. By the same token, its potential number of servings of food poisoning are correspondingly higher.

        I expect that people eat more servings of food prepared at home than at diners. So the potential number of servings of food poisoning in private homes are correspondingly higher.

      • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas Barta

        mtraven: Look, I “get” that there are differences between pay situations and mutualist exchanges. My point is that you can’t simply cite the fact that you can think up a difference and claim Mission Accomplished. You have to show why that difference makes a difference — in this case, _what_ it is about gift vs. pay exchanges that bears on the legality of not washing hands.

        I compare your approach to arguing from “different names, man!” because that’s all you’ve presented. Without more elaboration about why one should care about your cited differences are (or what you have in mind when you bring those up), you’re not doing anything different from someone who is appealing to “different names, man!” All we have to work on is labels you’ve given, not actual insight. (Would you have been any less helpful if you had just said, “Diners are zignorg, while dinner parties are bugbod”?)

        Until you can start saying _responsive_ things on that matter, there’s no reason to drop the patronizing tone, because that seems to be the level at which you want to operate — where very basic things have to be explained to you to get you up to speed with the discussion.

        Next time, if you don’t have something to contribute, just kind of wait it out and read what others have to say. Or if you do have an insight, share it immediately, rather than leaving a trail of empty terms that we’re supposed to follow until you deign to make your point. Fair enough?

      • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

        @Silas Barta: If you really need the concept of “gift” and “economic transaction” explained to you, if those terms are just nonsense syllables, then there really isn’t a basis for discussion. Most people grasp those concepts by kindergarten. Yet somehow you are accusing me of “needing to have basic things explained”?

        Look son, I realize you are under the impression that you are much smarter than me, but I urge you to consider the possibility that the opposite is true. Neither proposition is likely to be of much interest to anyone else, so in the interests of maintaining a worthwhile discussion, maybe you should exert yourself to understand what I’m saying rather than devolving into personal jibes.

      • Khoth

        Tyrrell – sure, more people are eating at home than in restaurants. But a single restaurant will be serving hundreds of times more food than a single home kitchen, so the benefit of inspecting a given restaurant for hygiene will be hundreds of times higher than inspecting a given home.

        Silas – does that count as a relevant difference?

      • Tyrrell McAllister

        If you really need the concept of “gift” and “economic transaction” explained to you, if those terms are just nonsense syllables, then there really isn’t a basis for discussion.

        mtraven, I understand the difference between the selling of food and the giving of food to friends and family. When I look upon a group of people eating, I am never unable to ascertain whether they are eating in a home or in a commercial establishment. So, I recognize that there are differences between these two activities. And I recognize that these activities are different in ways that are important for some purposes (such as whether I need to bring enough money).

        What I don’t yet see is why the law needs to enforce hand-washing during one of those activities but not the other. Among the differences that I recognize, there are none which obviously have that implication.

      • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas Barta

        mtraven, I deem myself smarter than you because, with each comment, you show new ignorance of the topic under discussion, usually by assuming that the the dispute is in one area, when it is really in another.

        As Tyrrell mentions, it’s easy to discern a gift from a pay transaction (the latter of which you mistakenly distinguish as “economic”, when really they both area). That’s not what anyone is having difficulty with.

        The question, instead, is how that difference is relevant to whether regulations (such as the legality of not washing hands before handling food) should apply to one but not the other. And there may very well be a solid justification that starts from the fact of one being a pay transaction!

        But here’s the thing — you haven’t given such a justification! And until you do, your comments are not contributing to the discussion, and you probably should have just left it to people who at least understand what’s being asked well enough to give relevant replies, such as Khoth.

        Thanks for your cooperation in future efforts to keep up the signal-to-noise ratio!

        @Khoth: That would be a good basis for distinguishing them, but the regulations don’t depend on the number of people you serve, rather, they merely depend on whether the food is being sold. If the regulations directly depended on the number of recipients of the food, your reply would be adequate justification.

      • Khoth

        There are very few people who give away large amounts of food regularly, and very few restaurants who serve very little, so there’s little upside to making it based on quantity.

        However, when writing a law, there are advantages to basing it on a clear obvious distinction that basically captures what you really want rather than a hard-to-enforce numerical quantity. (For a similar case, see Schelling’s discussion of how it can be a good idea to ban even small nuclear weapons even while allowing more destructive conventional weapons)

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        Tyrrell McAllister

        I expect that people eat more servings of food prepared at home than at diners.

        Yes, that is true. However, the hygiene decisions made at many separate homes are made independently. As Khoth said

        But a single restaurant will be serving hundreds of times more food than a single home kitchen, so the benefit of inspecting a given restaurant for hygiene will be hundreds of times higher than inspecting a given home.

        In addition, if the restaurant is part of a chain, with centralized decisions, such as tradeoffs between efficiency and hygiene, made by single executives and affecting the risks at many sites, then the argument for inspection (in this case of the decisions) is yet stronger.

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        Silas Barta, you wrote (in response to Khoth):

        If the regulations directly depended on the number of recipients of the food, your reply would be adequate justification.

        This happens, to some extent. There are regulations which are relaxed on small businesses. I think that the regulations typically use the number of employees as a surrogate for the volume of business, but it is still in the direction that you suggest.

        Perhaps we need roughly 5 tiers of increasing scrutiny, based on scale of operation, and corresponding risks of operation:

        individuals
        sole proprietorships
        small businesses
        typical businesses
        “too big to fail” businesses

      • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

        @silas — you’re changing your tune. First you said that your problem was that terms like “gift” were meaningless, now you say you understand them just fine but want to know why they should be regulated differently. But I don’t see why that should be my burden — Hanson is the person trying to conflate two different things which are clearly different. You might just as well say that schools and jails are both buildings filled with people — why then do we put locks on on one but not the other?

      • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas Barta

        Thanks to the non-mtraven commenters on this thread — some great ideas about how to preserve the useful distinctions in the law while avoiding arbitrary measures — not to mention the comment about Schelling’s point.

        @mtraven: I didn’t change my tune. My position — if read in context each time — was that the difference you cited had no apparent significance, nor did you offer any. I always understood what the terms mean; I never understood in what sense you were claiming them to be a _relevant_ difference, a kind that _justified_ the different legal treatment — and you should have done so the first (or second, or third, or last) time around.

        You might just as well say that schools and jails are both buildings filled with people — why then do we put locks on on one but not the other?

        If someone asked that, the correct way to answer would be, “A prison very strongly needs inmates to be kept from leaving — which locks achieve — while a school does not.” See what I did there? I thought about a relevant distinction, and I articulated that distinction, justifying the difference that the hypothetical questioner didn’t understand or notice.

        That’s what happens when you have real understanding of an issue. And that kind of skill is really neat to have, as it really helps you focus your thoughts and have genuinely fruitful exchanges of ideas with others. Definitely a skill that the folks in your neck of the woods might want to buff up from time to time. Just, whenever you notice you can’t articulate an insight, brush up on the topic a little so you have a well-connected mental model of the world. Very helpful.

        OTOH, if I were to approach that questioner with your level of intellect, I would say something cryptic like, “What a dumb question. This is so stupid. For one thing, school is a learning issue, while prison is a corrections issue.” Or …”schools are under the department of education, while prisons are under the department of justice”.

        Do you see the difference between those answers? If not, I can explain — you know, the kind of thing you *can’t* do when you purport to understand something. (Maybe find a circle with higher standards, or doesn’t just agree with whatever you say?)

      • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

        @silas: you are confused about what is at issue here. I could not care less about justifying the distinctions between gift transactions and cash transactions — it’s encoded into law and common sense and I am fine with that. If you feel a need to have further justification for it, that’s fine, but I’m under no obligation to provide it for you.

        Instead, I am interested in what motivates people like Hanson to mystify this distinction and pretend that it is due to “bias” or “hypocrisy”. Since he is paid by the Koch brothers who are famous for their political efforts to abolish the regulatory powers of government, I assume that his agenda, like the Koch’s, is to delegitimize the very notion that business should be regulated. All the cutesy word games are simply a blind for this, as far as I can see.

      • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas Barta

        @mtraven: Whoa whoa whoa! Are you seriously saying that, *even if* the explanation for the diner/dinner party disparity were as easy to explain as the school/prison lock disparity, you would nevertheless post some ~1000 words while *still* finding it too burdensome to articulate a justification for the disparity?

        Because I just showed how easy it is to explain something like that … if (and this is an important “if”) you have a clue what you’re talking about. (Kinda sucks when an example backfires like that, don’t ya think?)

        Are your explanation skills and understanding really that bad? When someone asks you why prisoners are locked into their prisons, do you really struggle to answer the question, unable to say more than “common sense”, as you’ve done here? (Remember, that was the example you gave of a too-obvious-to-explain situation.)

        Is there anything you _are_ capable of explaining (to the level I gave for the school/prison question), or is everyone just too clueless to understand everything you say? Have you ever transfered understanding to another human in your entire life?

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        I think people are confusing the utility rationalization of regulations with the legal rationalizations for regulation.

        In the US, Congress has the right and the duty to regulate commerce. People who sell food can be compelled to prepare that food under certain conditions as part of the regulation of commerce.

        Congress does not have the right or the duty to regulate hand washing before food preparation. The US Constitution was written before the germ theory of disease was developed and Congress was not given the authority to regulate practices (such as hand washing) so as to control disease transmission.

        There is the “promote the general welfare” clause, which could (in principle) be used to mandate hand washing before food preparation, but there are lots of “libertarian-like” individuals who would object to that kind of intrusive government.

        I think the “bias” that Robin is looking for is “preferences I have” over “preferences I don’t have”. In the context of commerce, the government should be able to regulate air pollution; that is if you are selling something, the manufacture of which releases greenhouse gases, the government should be able to regulate that release as a part of commerce. “Libertarian-like” individuals who make money selling products that cause the release of air pollution don’t want regulations that limit their pollution. The “reason” is not some libertarian ideal, it is simply their preference because they can make more money if they don’t have to limit their pollution.

        There are (or were), lots of laws that have no legal basis in the US Constitution but which have been adopted for no reason other than the personal preferences of lawmakers and those the lawmakers are trying to curry favor with. For example anti-sodomy laws. A lot of the tax code has also been adopted simply to shift the tax burden away from certain taxpayers and onto other taxpayers.

  • RJB

    There are many such apparent regulatory “biases,” i.e., ways that regulations hold some things to higher standards than others, even when the relevant consequences seem similar. For example we seem to prefer:….

    You are making quite a leap from the types of entities and activities we regulate to what we “prefer.” Does the fact that we regulate monetary exchange more than barter indicate a preference? Perhaps it is just that the cost of regulating monetary exchange is lower and its effectiveness higher than that of regulating barter. Cost/effectiveness, plus a dose of “control the big and/or unfamiliar” seem to account for most of the differences in regulation you identify.

    I also wonder about the use of the word “we”. It is another leap to conclude commonly held preferences about regulatory policy from the fact that the person on the street doesn’t think about the justification. Most people know little about the history or motivation for particular regulations. Instead, most beliefs are shaped heavily by status quo bias (supporting what exists) and by partisan tribalism (supporting laws that their fellows support and opposing those the other party supports).

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Good point about the “we”. It would be more accurate to go from observations of law to a statement more like “Our rulers seem to prefer…”

  • Jeffrey Soreff

    Another strange one is the biases with respect to recreational drugs: Ethanol, nicotine, and caffeine (and some related xanthines) legal and socially approved, while others with a more benign risk profile prohibited?

    Mostly (within the U.S.) this can approximately be subsumed under old-preferred-to-new (though a lot of the prohibited drugs are not actually new, though the burst of popularity in the 1960s might give that impression).

    One other factor probably accounts for the legal bias in favor of cocaine hydrochloride over the free base. The former is consumed mostly by the rich, while the latter is consumed mostly by the poor. There is, of course, a world of bias against behaviors of the poor that distinguish them from the rich – right down to the level of some communities forbidding the poor from air-drying their clothes.

  • http://thecandidefund.wordpress.com/ dirk

    I’m happy to maintain my bias of individuals over firms. I’m an individual and happen to naturally hate anything that tries to sublimate my identity into that of a larger group. I’ve spent over a decade working for firms where I am not allowed to completely be myself and it fucking sucks but I do it for the money and I’m not proud about it. When I have enough money I will happily tell my firm to fucking suck my cock and fuck off. I view them as pure evil simply because they impose stupid rules upon me. What’s the point in fucking living if I’m going to give up and assimilate?

    Firms suck cock.

  • http://zatavu.blogspot.com Troy Camplin

    All of the things people show bias against are “foreign” in nature. Perhaps a test of one’s true cosmopolitanism is the degree to which one accepts all of these foreign elements. The only seeming outlier is non-profit over for-profit, but if we consider that we evolved to believe the world was a zero-sum game, so postivie-sum games are also “foreign” to us. Thus, zero-sum non-profits that engage in mere transfers vs. positive-sum creation of profit value are preferred.

  • http://zatavu.blogspot.com Troy Camplin

    We prefer organizations of any type over spontaneous orders. Which only confirms my thesis.

  • Proper Dave

    Individuals are regulated as well, an amateur pilot may not carry any paying passengers, an unprofessional driver as well. The “bias” comes down to the difference between amateur and professional. Both are regulated according to their different roles.

    The only big bias I see is the one regarding religious org’s.

  • John 4

    Even though I love your general contrarian outlook, the premise behind this post is, I think, incorrect. Ordinary folks–and pretty much everyone else (maybe not you, but you’re a freak genius)–accept most of what they believe on the basis of testimony from some authority or authorities they trust. That’s a perfectly rational thing to do–we really don’t have any other option, if we want to have opinions about much of consequence. For westerners like us, there are basically two overarching authorities, the Church and the Enlightenment. (Of course there are many warring factions within each.) Most of the stuff most people accept (at least the controversial stuff) is on the testimony of one of these authorities. This is no more irrational than my belief that motion is relative, even though I am unable to recall the experiments that support this belief. Since various prominent authorities teach that the above preferences are rational, the layman’s belief that the above preferences are rational is itself rational if and only if the expert authorities can produce good arguments. A layman’s ability to produce an argument is neither here nor there.

  • Hedonic Treader

    But as with the common preference to redistribute money but not grades, I expect few folks could quickly come up with those reasons, even though most embrace such preferences. This again suggests that the clever reasons some can offer are not the main reasons most folks support such biases.

    Or they are the main reasons and people are so used to the status quo that they’ve never given the question much thought (I suspect this is the case with the money vs. grade distribution).

    As pointed out before, income has a different function than grades. While grades are mostly a metric of achievement, income is both a market incentive and a means of accessing goods and services, including those necessary for survival.

    If there was a robot system installed at each college killing off all students who fail classes, and the only way to prevent it were to re-distribute grades, the function would shift from “metric of achievement” to “means of survival”, and you’d quickly get majority consent to re-distribute.

    And the obvious reasons that might drive most folks to support such biases do not suggest these are biases worth keeping.

    You don’t accept the functional difference outlined above?

  • http://zatavu.blogspot.com Troy Camplin

    Then why do redistributionists talk about “fairness” rather than “survival”? Perhaps it’s because in countries like the U.S. survival isn’t even remotely at issue.

    • Hedonic Treader

      Ok, let’s re-phrase the function as “access to goods and services for baseline quality of life”. It’s still a different function than a pure achievement metric. Grades don’t have this function.

      From a utilitarian perspective, some level of distribution makes sense. Of course it would be counterproductive to disincentivize people or generate perceptions of unfairness and coercive disappropriation. But happiness studies have shown consistently that wealth above a baseline doesn’t correlate that much with happiness increases, while being forced to live below a certain baseline can decrease well-being (e.g. when people can’t access proper medical care etc.)

      Yes, I know, Ayn Rand would call this immoral, and libertarians would insist on absolute self-ownership extending to material possessions. But these concepts are mostly broken because 1) the self is an illusion, which pretty much settles both self-ownership and egoism, and 2) there is no fact of the matter about material structures in the physical world as to whom they belong. If you have a patch of land somewhere, society may grant you legal ownership rights, but of course, there is no *physical* fact of the matter about the properties of the land as to whom it belongs.

      Concepts of fairness and justice are often very subjective. Just the random birth lottery where and when we were born, in what social circles and with what genes, determine our opportunities in ways we could never have influenced, in a world of notoriously limited material resources. That destroys most practical implementations of the justice of aquisition principle, and as a consequence, the libertarian pipe-dream of absolute self-ownership extending to all material goods.

  • richard silliker

    Look at the names, man!”

    @Silas Barta

    I can understand your frustration. However, how is this for fun. ?

    “The name of the song is called ‘Haddocks’ Eyes.’ ”
    “Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?” Alice said, trying to feel interested. “No, you don’t understand,” the Knight said, looking a little vexed. “That’s what the name is called.”

    Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

  • arch1

    A common thread among the listed preference pairs is minimization of perceived risk.

    Which suggests that a significant portion of the arbitrariness or irrationality in these preferences may be traceable to irrationality in peoples’ perception of risk (concerning which there is a large literature).

  • Patrick (orthonormal)

    I find it odd that nobody’s mentioned the incentives involved. In the absence of regulation, you would expect people to take more care with sanitation when making meals for themselves and their friends than when making meals to sell to strangers. Yes, occasionally making customers ill tends to hurt one’s repeat business and reputation, but perhaps not enough to outweigh (for the owner) what they might save in effort and money by cutting corners.

    Therefore, in a country free of restaurant regulations, I would avoid eating at restaurants if I could- save for those (more expensive) ones which can afford costly signals of sanitation. In theory, independent inspection companies could certify restaurants more cheaply than government inspectors. In practice, since the restaurants would be the inspectors’ customers, their incentives would be towards laxity and I’d find it as difficult to identify a trustworthy inspector as to identify a trustworthy restaurant in the first place.

    Put it all together, and I’ll make the empirical prediction that (even controlling for relevant economic factors) there will be fewer thriving restaurants in countries where there aren’t restaurant safety laws, and thus regulation in that domain can be an easy utility gain.

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  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    A human can do almost nothing on its own.

    We want to signal to others that we are good cooperation partners (to get more cooperation opportunities).

    However, we also want to signal to others that we are better cooperation partners than others (to discourage others from removing our cooperation opportunities and transferring them to others).

    So when we wish to inhibit others from competing with us (competitive motive), to the extent possible, we do so in a way that allows us to pretend we do so out of a cooperative motive – for their own good.

    All flavors of hipocrisy are local solutions to this (disguising competition as cooperation, at least toward potential cooperation partners).

    • richard silliker

      “.A human can do almost nothing on its own.”

      Care to explain further?

      • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

        I mean both in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (in which a human kicked out of its social group would almost certainly die) and in modern times. None of us can provide for our own basic survival without cooperation from others – which includes not only obvious things like nutrition, medicine, and shelter, but also requirements we are less conscious of but are no less serious and painful if we are deprived of them, such as sanitation and social/cognitive needs.

  • Karl Hallowell

    Now I’m sure clever folks can think up justifications for such preferences. But as with the common preference to redistribute money but not grades, I expect few folks could quickly come up with those reasons, even though most embrace such preferences. This again suggests that the clever reasons some can offer are not the main reasons most folks support such biases. And the obvious reasons that might drive most folks to support such biases do not suggest these are biases worth keeping.

    That just may be due to the difficulty of articulation and reasoning. When you ask “Why?”, that starts down a path that most people haven’t thought out. I think it’s a basic trust issue. Virtually everyone has eaten at an unknown restaurant. Regulation, perhaps like branding or standards building, provides a means for people to build trust in certain activities or products.

    Turn the question into a choice. Would the person rather eat at a restaurant where no standard of quality or safety exists (beyond whatever brief inspection the customer takes upon entering the place) versus one with regulation enforcing quality and safety? I think most people would rather eat at the place where regulations could close it down, if the restaurant became dangerous enough.

  • NRWO

    In some sense, the gov’t – though liability laws – already regulates your kitchen (albeit ex post): If I attend a dinner party at your house, and you negligently kill me with tainted food, a lawsuit may be forthcoming.

    People know this, of course, and are careful to take precautions to reduce liability, e.g., you don’t serve Tommy peanuts at a dinner part if you know he has a severe peanut allergy.

    Although the gov’t can’t regulate all private kitchens in all households all the time – that would be practically infeasible, or else it would! – it regulates the matter ex post through liability laws.

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