Tag Archives: Law

Re An Accused, Tell The Truth

Agnes Callard says we should not fight her cancellation:

Within the mob there is no justice and no argument and no reasoning, no space for inquiry or investigation. The only good move is not to play. … If I am being canceled I want my friends … to stand by, remain silent, and do nothing. If you care about me, let them eat me alive. … The expectation that one’s friends exhibit the “courage” to speak up one one’s behalf, the inclination to see the cancellation as a test of the friendship, which suddenly requires proofs of loyalty — these are the first step on the road to the friend purge.

Here is how it goes: a few of the cancelee’s friends meet the expectation to speak up in support, but those who remain silent — which is most of them — become suspect. New, publicly aligned friends are acquired to take their place. The beleaguered cancelee now feels she sees who her “real friends” are, but in fact she has no friends anymore. All she has are allies. First she turned her friends, and perhaps even her family members, into allies; and then she acquired more allies to fill the ranks of the purged friends. The end result is a united front, but what I would call real friendship has gone missing in the bargain. I do not want any of that. I want friends who feel free to disagree with me both publicly and privately.

If I were accused of a crime, I wouldn’t want my friends to protest outside the courthouse, at least at first; I’d want to give the legal system a chance. But if my associates were called on to testify about me, I’d want them to comply, and to tell the truth as they saw it. Not to say whatever would seem to “support” me, but just to tell the truth.

Humans have only had legal systems for the last ten thousand years or so. For a million years before that, we had mob justice, which worked better than no justice, even if not as well as legal justice. (if you doubt this, see no justice among non-human primates.) Today we still handle some kinds of accusations and punishments via mobs. I’d rather we handled them via law, but given that some accusations are handled by mobs, I’d still want to help mob justice to work as well as possible. Mob justice is in fact possible, and legitimate.

Under mob justice, there is no central authority to subpoena witnesses. So people must instead volunteer their relevant testimony. But such testimony still functions as in legal trials to appropriately influence mob jury verdicts. Thus if I were accused under mob justice (as has in fact happened to me in the past), I’d want my associates to offer testimony relevant to that accusation. Not loyal ally support, but to just tell the relevant truth.

For example, many recent mob justice accusations have been of the form that someone’s statement is a “dog whistle”, purposely done to express nefarious beliefs or allegiances. Thus intent is relevant here, and intent is something on which close associates are often especially qualified to testify. The mob jury can thus reasonably want to hear associates’ take. Given what you know about this person’s views and styles, how plausible is it that their statement was in fact intended to express the alleged beliefs or connections?

We humans are often far more willing to say positive than negative things about associates. But this can work out okay as we commonly infer negative things from the unwillingness to say positive things. For example, when asked for a recommendation re a previous worker, many employers are willing to say express honest positive opinions, but will decline to say anything if their opinion is negative.

I have at times had private contact with people who actually hold views that, at least in a technical sense, might reasonably be labeled as racist or sexist. So if I had to answer the question of whether an expression of theirs might plausibly express such views, my honest answer would have to be yes. But if I had the option, I’d try to instead just say nothing about the subject. But for most of my associates, I’d happily say that such an interpretation is quite implausible, given what I know about them.

In this sort of context, Callard’s request for silence from her friends would hinder mob justice, and make it more likely to go awry against her. The silence of her friends (among which I count myself) would likely, and reasonably, be taken by the mob jury as evidence against her. I get that she is willing to accept this cost, for the cause of preventing the friend purge process that she reasonably detests. But I will hold my friends to a higher standard: don’t just support me unconditionally, but instead tell relevant truths.

If you don’t know anything relevant to the accusation, then yes stay silent. But if you have testimony relevant to the accusations against me, then speak up. Politely, calmly, and with appropriate qualifiers and doubts, but truthfully. Please friends, enemies, and others, in any trial, done at court or before a mob, just tell the relevant truth.

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Lottery Lawsuits, For Small Harm Law

Twenty-five years ago I posted a short essay, on which I commented ten years later. Let me now elaborate on an improved variation of that same idea.

Imagine you came out from the grocery store to find a scratch on the side of your car door, a scratch that matches the position of the door on the car next to yours. You estimate they’ve done you $100 of damage. But in our world today this is where the story ends, as it would usually be crazy to spend thousands on a lawyer to sue them for such a small amount. So law today does little to discourage such harms. People can sloppily scratch car doors without fearing that they will have to pay damages.

Now imagine a better world. You take a few pictures of the two cars, including their license plate, and then use a phone app to upload all this and officially declare that they owe you $100 in damages. Using the license plate photo, the car owner is identified and notified, and is issued a “ticket” in that amount, like tickets are now issued for parking violations. If they accept your claim and pay that amount, then it goes to you, and the issue is closed. (Same if they offer you a smaller amount to settle, which you accept.) Unpaid tickets accumulate in the usual way, and the local government uses its usual methods to try to get people to pay them.

The ticket is also settled, and no longer counted as unpaid, if they refuse to accept your claims, but still deposit at least $100. And if they do this, then you must also deposit at least $100. (You each might want to deposit more than this $100 min to help with trial legal fees.)

Both of you also submit a chance, like one in a thousand, and then both of your deposits are converted into lottery claims at the smaller of the two chances. Claims which are then soon (i.e., in a few days) resolved (perhaps via collecting many similar legal cases.) So if the smallest submitted chance was one in a thousand, then 999 times out of a thousand, both of your deposits disappear, and you are both notified that the issue is now settled.

However, one time out of a thousand, you both win the lottery, and then each of your accounts now holds 1000 times what you deposited there. At which point you could also settle the suit.

But if you don’t settle, then your lawsuit goes to trial, and if the court rules that their car door scratch hurt you by $100, then they now owe you $100K, to be paid out of their account. However if the court rules against you, and also affirms their automatic countersuit, that your suit was frivolous, then you now owe them $100K, to be paid out of your account. Once each of you has paid what you owe, any remaining funds in your accounts are returned to you each in cash, tax-free.

In this better world, if they scratch your car, then they expect to pay $100 on average, and you expect to get that on average. But if you just frivolously sue someone for $100, without a plausible prospect of winning, then you expect to pay $100 on average, and they expect to gain that amount. And thus in this world the prospect of such lawsuits changes behavior, toward more optimal care, just as it usually does for large harms today. Law now works to discourage small as well as large harms.

Note that we might want to set some lower limit on allowed lottery chances, such as via a max limit on how much can appear in your account after winning. It also seems fine to let people sell their claims, and also to insure against these lottery risks, perhaps even by depositing money in other accounts to be won exactly when the main lottery is lost. And once notified, defendants should be required to save relevant info on a case until its lottery is resolved.

The key idea here is this: If I’m willing to suffer a lottery risk to sue you, you must also suffer the same lottery risk to defend yourself.

That is, if I claim that you hurt me and am willing to deposit an amount to cover your counter-claim that I’ve sued you frivolously, then I can force you to make (at least) the same size deposit, after which both of our deposits, and also our legal claims against each other, are converted into lottery claims. If we win this lottery, we do a trial the usual way, except now with larger stakes.

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Hidden Motives In Law

In our book The Elephant in the Brain, Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, Kevin Simler and I first review the reasons to expect humans to often have hidden motives, and then we describe our main hidden motives in each of ten areas of life. In each area, we start with the usual claimed motive, identify puzzles that don’t fit well with that story, and then describe another plausible motive that fits better.

We hoped to inspire others to apply our method to more areas of life, but we have so far largely failed there. So its past time for me to take up that task. And as law & economics is the class I teach most often, that’s a natural first place to start. So what are our motives regarding our official systems for dispute resolution?

Saying the word “justice” doesn’t help much; what does that mean? But the field of law and economics has a standard answer that looks reasonable: economic efficiency. Which in law translates to encouraging cost-benefit-optimal levels of commitment, reliance, care, and activity. And the substantial success of law and economics scholarship suggests that this is in fact an important motive in law. Furthermore, as most everyone can get behind it, this is plausibly our most overt motive regarding law. But we also see many puzzles in law not well explained by this approach. Which suggests to me three other motives.

Back in the forager era, before formal law, disputes were resolved by mobs. That is, the local band talked informally about accusations of norm violations, came to a consensus about what to do, and then implemented that themselves. As this mob justice system has many known failure modes, we probably added law as a partial replacement in order to cut such failures. Thus a plausible secondary motive in law is to try to minimize the common failings of mob justice, and to insulate the legal system from mob influence.

The main failure of mob justice is plausibly a rush to judgment; each person in a gossip network has local incentives to accept the stance of whomever first reports an accusation to them. And the most interested parties are far more likely than average to be the first source of the first report someone hears. In response, law seeks to make legal decision makers independent and disconnected from the disputants and their gossip network, and to make such decision markers listen to all the evidence before making their decision. The rule against hearsay evidence is also plausibly to limit the influence of gossip on trials.

Leaders of the legal system often express concerns about its perceived legitimacy, and this makes sense as a third motive of the legal system. And as the most common threat to such legitimacy is widespread criticism of particular legal decisions, many features of law can be understood as ways to avoid such criticism. For example, criticism is likely cut via having legal personnel, venues, and demeanors be maximally prestigious and deferential to legal authorities.

Also, the more complex are legal language and arguments, the harder it becomes for mobs to question them. The longer the delay before final legal decisions, the less passion will remain to challenge them. Finally, the more expensive is the legal process, the fewer rulings there will be to question. Our most official legal systems differ from all our other less official dispute resolutions systems in all of these ways. They are slower, more expensive, less understandable, and more prestigious.

The last hidden motive that I think I see is that each legal jurisdiction wants to look good to outsiders. So most every jurisdiction has laws against widely disapproved behaviors, such as adultery, prostitution, or drinking alcohol on the street, even though such laws are often quite weakly enforced. Most set high standards of proof and adopt the usual rules constraining what evidence can be presented at trial, even though there’s little evidence that these rules help on net.

Most jurisdictions pretend to enforce all laws equally on everyone, but actually give police differential priorities; some locations, suspects, and victims count a lot more than others. It would be quite feasible, and probably lot more efficient, to use a bounty hunting system to enforce laws, and most locals are well aware of these varying priorities. But that would require admitting such differential priorities to outsiders, via explicit differences in the bounties paid. So most jurisdictions prefer government employees, who can be more hypocritical.

Similarly, our usual form of criminal punishment, nice jail, is less efficient than all the other forms, including mean jail, exile, corporal punishment, and fines. Holding constant how averse a convict is to suffer each punishment, nice jail costs the most. Alas, the world has fallen into an equilibrium where any jurisdiction that allows any punishment other than nice jail is declared to be cruel and unjust. Even giving the convict the choice between such punishments is called unjust. So the strong desire to avoid such accusations pushes most jurisdictions into using the least efficient form of punishment.

In sum, I see four big motives in law: encouraging commitment and care, avoiding failings of mob justice, preserving system legitimacy via avoiding clear decisions, and hindering distant observers from accusing a jurisdiction of injustice, even if most locals are not fooled.

One can of course postulate many more possible motives, including diverting revenue and status to legal authorities, preserving and increasing existing inequalities, giving civil authorities more arbitrary powers, and empowering busybodies to meddle in the lives of others. But it isn’t clear to me that these add much more explanatory power, given the above motives.

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We Trust The Statusful

The ancient world heavily favored aristocrats for important social positions. Yes, they were probably on average more competent in many ways, but many have claimed that good family connections were favored more strongly than can be explained by this effect.

You might argue that aristocrats were just conspiring to favor themselves, but it seems that others also shared their preference. For example, many stories (e.g.) describe someone seeking an audience with a high official, out of a belief that higher officials must be less corrupt and more concerned with general welfare, relative to the lower ones. “If only the king would hear, he’d do something.”

It seems to me that humans have generally trusted higher status people more, and that we still do so today. For example, status is the main way we trust doctors, lawyers, CEOs, fund managers, and many other professionals (instead of track records or incentive contracts).

As another example, even though people say that they trust smaller orgs more than big ones, people say they trust those at the top of orgs more than those at the bottom. Yes, top people get more easily spread their messages blaming lower folks for problems, and can more easily repress lower folks who blame them. But it seems most people don’t correct for this, or don’t see it as a big correction.

Furthermore, consider our criminal law system. Whether and how much a possible criminal is accused or punished is influenced by many parties. First police, then prosecutors, then judges, then appellate judges, then executives who can pardon, and finally prison wardens and parole boards who influence prison duration and severity. All of these parties are either politicians, political appointees, or folks appointed directly or indirectly by such appointees, and thus should all have incentives to please such people.

Yet if you ask people who they trust to make choices in this system, they consistently prefer the higher status people. In some recent polls, I’ve found that they trust prosecutors more than police, trust judges more than prosecutors, trust judges more than prison wardens or parole boards, and trust executives whose pardons overrule judges. Furthermore, people only proposed recently to “defund” the lowest status among these groups, and one of the main proposals to make police more trustworthy is to require more years of education, i.e., to raise their status.

Some people say this is because the higher status groups have better incentives. But we have chosen the incentives that each of these parties to be what they are, and we could, if we wanted, give all these other groups the same incentives we now give the most trusted group, judges. The relative status of these groups seems to me a cleaner explanation.

I think we are suffering enormous losses from trusting based on status, instead of using other methods. But it seems very hard to displace our innate trust of the high status enough to get people to consider such alternatives. We don’t seek solutions when we don’t think we have a problem.

Added 6Apr: I failed above to mention that we are reluctant to ask for track records or incentives from our statusful suppliers in part because we see that as weakening the connection by which their status raises our status. We want it to look like we mutually trust each other, as that’s the kind of relation by which associates gain status from each other.

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From Norms to Law In War

Humans have long had norms against “starting” fights. Even so, those who start fights are often able to point to things that the other side did first to “really” start the fight. For example, Putin says that actions by the West forced his hand in Ukraine.

Within a nation, law is usually able to draw a clear enough line to decide who started a fight. But if you think about it, at the global level the world is not very clear on what counts as an “act of war”. Many have said the following are not acts of war: selling weapons, econ sanctions, cyberattacks, troop advisors, and even bombings.

You might agree that we haven’t written down an exact clear rule, yet still feel like that it seems pretty clear in most cases. But due to “automatic norms” this is usually less clear than we think. Me four years ago:

categorization of some of the options as norm violating is supposed to come to us fast, and with little thought or doubt. … we are supposed to be sure of which options to reject, without needing to consult with other people, and without needing to try to frame the choice in multiple ways, to see if the relevant norms are subject to framing effects. We are to presume that framing effects are unimportant, and that everyone agrees on the relevant norms and how they are to be applied. … “ignorance of the norms isn’t plausible; you must have known.” (more more more)

For war, this norm ambiguity is especially unfortunate, as it causes more war. What we should hope for instead is to deal with war less via vague informal norms, and more via formal law.

You might object that without a strong central world government, we can’t really have law; we can only have treaties enforced informally, by a threat of shame in the eyes of a world community. But actually, the world has long seen many different kind of legal systems, including legal systems that are stronger than informal norms, yet using powers short of a strong central government.

For example, in one classic legal system, courts issue rulings without having any further power to enforce their rulings. Their threat is just that if you don’t do what they say, they may officially label you an “outlaw”, after which anyone is free to harm you without fear of legal penalties.

Such a classic legal system could be further strengthened if its subjects were to give it hostages. For example, a financial hub which holds many financial assets of subjects could also serve as a legal system, if those assets held could be forfeit in the case of adverse legal rulings. (And if that hub were run by a distinct non-partisan community proud to serve in its legal role, and sufficiently able protect itself from outside attack.)

Thus it seems possible for the world to have a legal system wherein a widely-used sufficiently-defended financial hub agreed to enforce treaties between the nations whose assets were held there. Then if a nation violated its treaty, and refused to abide by this court’s ruling against it, then this law could declare that nation an outlaw, and grab its held assets.

How is that different from a large world alliance spontaneously agreeing to treat a nation as an outlaw and then grab whatever assets they can? It would be the difference between norms and contract law. An alliance might not be fair. It might instead not protect a once-ally if that were inconvenient, or it might opportunistically use its power to unfairly dump on a nation if that happened to be convenient. In contrast, with a more formal law, we might have more (though hardly infinite) hope for principled consistent non-partisan rulings.

The world doesn’t need to have a strong world government to have a functioning contract law between nations. Treaties can be more than expressions of hope.

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Make Law Like Couches, Not Cars

Action movies often show fights in complex environments like factories, ships, kitchens, warehouses, or construction sites. In such cases, whomever knows more details of that environment can have big advantages in the fight. However, when people instead try to arrange a “fair fight”, they usually choose simple environments that combatants can know similarly well, like an empty flat walled square or circle.

Lawyers often fill their offices with big shelves full of law books. As if to say “Law is a vast complex machine you wouldn’t want to mess with without access to an engineer like me who knows all its details.” Or more relevant, “The arena of law is as complex a place for a fight as is a factory or kitchen. You don’t want to fight there without a warrior like me who knows all those complex details.”

However, the essence of law is for a judge to hear A complain about B, and then to issue a ruling to reward or punish A or B. And the main point of such law is to induce better behavior via shared expectations of such rulings. For that purpose, what matters about the law is those shared prior expectations; further legal detail beyond that has little social value.

Actually, added legal complexity and detail can hurt, by tempting people to learn more legal details in order to gain strategic advantages. Just as warriors fighting in a kitchen would need to learn kitchen details, people with possible legal conflicts can need to learn about arbitrary legal details, or to hire lawyers who learn them, even if those details do little to help guide prior actions by A or B.

Imagine that two people will hold a verbal debate in some physical space. Law without needless details is like the debaters sitting on a simple couch to do their debate. Such a couch has little other structure besides that which is needed to coordinate their locations and orientations. Which is good.

Now imagine a couch with lots of little pockets holding weapons or controls to make the couch poke people, change shape, get hot, or make noises. Something like a car. If you were to be in a debate on such a complex couch, you’d want to invest in learning those details. For example, you might be able to poke your opponent out of view at just the right moment. Even though that is a social waste.

Is a minimal couch-like law possible? Consider juries. Imagine there is little formal law, so that juries can rule most any way they choose. In this case legal expectations are just expectations over jury rulings. So if A and B know the community from which jurors are chosen well enough, then they know that they have shared legal expectations. And they know that there’s not much either of them can do to gain more info on that. Their law is a couch, not a car.

Of course it is not enough just to have shared legal expectations; one also wants those expectations to do well at taking into account situation details known to both A and B. Thus one problem with a simple jury system is that random juries many not know important situation details that are known by both A and B. So each pair A and B might prefer that a case between be judged by a jury chosen from a community closer to them, so that this jury knows more of their shared context.

But you also couldn’t pick jurors who are too closely connected to A and B, as these might not be willing to function as independent jurors. So, for example, if A and B are both in the movie industry, it might make sense to give them a jury from the movie industry, who could then understand movie practices. But maybe not jurors who are currently working on the very same movie as they.

150 years ago, the US had something closer to this simple jury system, as stated laws were few and vague, juries made most decisions, lawyers were cheap and less often needed, and plea bargaining wasn’t yet much of a thing. Since then, US law has accumulated far more detail. Yet little of this detail seems to be an adaptation to a more complex world; most is just random. And we must pay lawyers who learn this detail if we hope to win at court.

Worse, regulations greatly restrict who can be a lawyer, slower more expensive legal processes add to our costs, and few of us have sufficient assets to pay if we lose. Thus US law has rotted in a great many ways. When will we notice that, and consider big changes?

By the way, one feature that we might want in a legal system is an ability ask it for prior approval for behavior. “Would it be legal or not-negligent if I did it this way?” And you might hope that a very detailed legal system could at least offer this advantage over a simple jury-based version. You’d just look up the relevant detailed law. But in fact our very complex detailed legal system doesn’t offer this feature. You just can’t ask what acts might be legal; you can only do stuff and find out later if you are punished.

Added 11a: Jury decisions can vary. To reduce the impact of that in particular parties, we could  have the consequences for them be set by prediction markets on jury decisions. Those market predictions would be far more consistent across cases.

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Self-Set Legal Liability

Today a big fraction of “constitutional law” issues are on our many awkward, incoherent, and inefficient collective choices regarding crime detection, punishment, co-liability, and freedoms of movement and privacy. My vouching proposal would instead privatize all of these choices, hopefully inducing more innovative, adaptive, and efficient versions. But it would not change how we decide what is a crime, how we judge particular accusations, or how we set priority levels for crime avoidance and detection.

In my vouching proposal, each kind of crime has a fine and a bounty. The fine sets how hard injurers and their vouchers will try to avoid causing the harm, while the bounty sets how hard bounty-hunters will work to detect who caused the harm if it happens. In this post, I’d like to consider further privatizing the choices of these two priority levels. I don’t have a fully worked out proposal here. I instead want more to frame the issues, and think aloud. Here goes.

Consider kinds of harms, like murder, rape, robbery, defamation, etc., where particular victims can be identified. We might want to let such victims set personal fine and bounty levels for each kind of harm that they might suffer, and to which others might contribute. If everyone were required to have an RFID tag that returns a pointer to a voucher, to prove that they are in fact vouched, then that pointer could also tell about that person’s personal fine and bounty levels, to help others better take those into account in their interactions.

For concreteness, consider the “harm” of being insulted. (I choose this example because it isn’t obvious whether this is in fact a harm that should be discouraged by law.) A potential victim of insults would seem to be well-placed to choose what fraction of the fine paid should go to pay for a bounty, as opposed to compensation to that victim. But setting a higher fine level would impose costs on others who might want to insult this victim. So we want the victim to pay a cost for raising their personal fine level. Ideally with the right cost, they’d set the level to match the actual harm they suffer from this event. Then others who faced this fine might make efficient choices regarding how hard to try to avoid insulting this victim.

Property taxes based on self-set property values can give property owners good incentives when those self-set values become legal property sales offers. Similarly, it seems to me that it might work to charge victims some fee in proportion to the insult fine levels that they set. Then the higher they set their insult fine, the more others will avoid insulting them, but the more they will have to pay in fees.

The key parameter here is the ratio of the personal annual fee paid to the personal fine level. This parameter may need to be set differently for each different kind of crime. How can we get such parameters near reasonable values?

For property taxes, it seems reasonable to add up all the expenses required to support property, such as the cost of roads, and set the property tax level so that the total tax revenue is near that sufficient to cover those property-supporting expenses. Similarly, my intuition is that the total amount of fees spent to set insult fine levels should be near the total amount of actual fees paid by those found guilty of insulting victims. My intuition is that these two numbers should be within a factor of ten of each other, and that setting them exactly equal wouldn’t be a terrible choice. (At least compared to our status quo.)

Now if these numbers are set to be similar, then the total amount of fees collected from victims would near the total fines paid by injurers, which would then be near the total amount of the premiums paid by voucher clients to their vouchers. Thus on average victim fees to set fine levels for hurting them could nearly pay for subsidies to on average cover all of the voucher premiums! So we needn’t worry about bankrupting injurers on average by forcing them to pay for vouchers.

Though, yes, those who seem to vouchers to have a much higher risk than average of hurting others would have to pay much higher premiums. (Those with lower than average risks might get cash rebates.) And that might well force such high risk clients to make big compromises via accepting unattractive co-liability, freedom, and punishment arrangements. Which we could think a just consequence of their risky inclinations, or we might feel sorry for some of them and subsidize their voucher premiums.

Yes, we might still worry about those who are too poor to afford large fines. Others would feel more free to insult them, or to cause them other harms. This is what efficiency requires, though again we could subsidize their fees if we felt sorry for them.

So far, I’ve focused on harms concentrated in particular victims; it makes sense for them to set personal fine levels. Other harms can be more diffuse, however, and harm a wider set of people together. For these, we’d want ways to help such groups to pay together to raise the fine levels regarding the harms that they might suffer together. But we have many promising “public goods mechanisms” for this purpose. And we still probably want to allow such fines to vary by group and context; setting a single level for all groups and contexts seems quite inefficient.

And that’s it, my out-loud thoughts on how to let people set personal priority levels regarding the harms that might befall them, in the context of my prior vouching proposal.

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Brainwashing is Sorcery

Can’t bring yourself to slaughter a nearby village, or a long-time associate? Mysticism can help you believe they already attacked you first, and that the stakes are so much higher than your personal gain. (More)

Most states have breach-of-the-peace laws that criminalize … obscene or abusive language in a public place, engaging in noisy behaviors, fighting in a public place, resisting lawful arrest, and disrupting a lawful assembly or meeting. … vagrancy, loitering, and public intoxication. (More)

Most laws are defined in relatively objective ways, so that society can truthfully say “no one is above the law”. Those who violate the law can be found guilty and punished, while others remain free.

But most societies have also included a few less objective and more “flexible” offenses, flexible enough to let the powerful more arbitrarily punishment disliked parties. For example many ancient societies let you retaliate directly against someone who previously attacked you via “sorcery”. And many societies today allow punishment for vague crimes like “vagrancy” and “loitering”.

The key difference is that such “flexible offenses” tend to be defined more in terms of how someone important doesn’t like an outcome, and less in terms of what specifically someone did to induce that resulting dislike. And a big problem is that this flexibility often lies dormant for long periods, so that those offenses don’t appear to be applied very flexibly in practice. Until, in a new period of conflict, potential flexibility gets realized and weaponized.

Our world of talk, conversation, and debate are policed by some official laws, such as on “fraud” and “libel”, and by many more inform norms. These norms are often complex, and vary in complex ways with context. We academics have an especially rich and powerful set of such norms.

While most of these norms are relatively objective and helpful, we also seem to include some more flexible offenses, such as “brainwashing”, “propaganda”, “manipulation”, “deception”, “misinformation”, “harassment”, and “gaslighting”. Again the key is that these tend to be defined less in terms of what exactly was done wrong, and more in terms of a disliked result. For example, someone is said to be “brainwashed” if they afterward adopted disliked beliefs or actions. But if exactly the same process results in approved beliefs or actions, there are no complaints.

In times of relative peace and civility, such offenses are applied flexibly only rarely and inconsistently, when particular powerful people find an opening to bludgeon particular opponents. So we don’t much notice their flexibility. But at other times of more severe, aligned, and polarized conflict, they become key weapons in the great battles. We today live in such a time.

The problem isn’t with the general idea of laws or norms, with the idea of enforcing laws, nor with the idea of shunning or shaming those who violate norms. The problem is with a small subset of especially vague norms, offering “loopholes big enough to drive a truck through”, as they say. And with periods when passions become enflamed so much that people become willing to wield any available weapons, such as flexible laws and norms.

The main solution that I can see is to work harder make our laws and norms less flexible. That is, to more explicitly and clearly express and define them. To more clearly say what exactly are the disapproved behaviors, independent of the disliked beliefs that result. This isn’t as easy as many think, as our social norms do actually tend to be subtler, more context dependent, and less widely understood than we think. Even so, it is quite possible, and often worth the bother. Especially in times like ours.

Another complementary solution is to switch from norm to law enforcement, as I’ve previously suggested. Legal norms are reluctant to allow flexible laws, and legal process is less prone to mistaken rushes to judgement.

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Can Combined Agents Limit Drugs?

Using pre-covid stats, a new J. Law & Econ paper tries to account for all U.S. crime costs, i.e., costs due to not everyone fully obeying all laws. These costs include prevention efforts, opportunity costs, and risks to life and health. The annual social loss is estimated at $2.9T, comparable to the $2.7T we spend on food and shelter, the $3.8T on medicine, and a significant fraction of our $21T GDP. One of the biggest contributions is $1.1T from 104K lives lost in 2018 at $10.6M each, including $0.7T from 67K drug overdoses deaths.

But such drug deaths have been roughly doubling every decade since 1980, and in the year up to April 2021, there were 100K US drug overdose deaths, making that loss by itself $1T, at least if you accepted a $10M per life estimate, which I do think is too high. Even so, drug overdose deaths are clearly a huge problem, worth thinking about. What can we do?

Reading up on the topic, I see a lot of conflicting theories on what would work best. But a big part of the problem seems to me to be that it isn’t clear who exactly owns this problem. We might see it as a family problem, an employer problem, a medical problem, or a legal problem. Yet each of those groups resists taking responsibility, and we don’t fully empower any of them to deal well with the problem.

Now I’m no expert on drug overdosing, bit I do fancy myself a bit of an expert on getting organizations to own problems. So let me try my hand at that.

I’ve previously suggested that people choose health agents, who pay for and choose medicine but who lose lots of money if their clients become disabled, in pain, or die. I’ve also suggested that people choose crime vouchers, who must pay for cash fines when their clients are found guilty of crimes, but who have client-voucher contracts able to set client co-liability and to choose punishments and freedoms of association, movement, and privacy. I’ve also suggested having agents who insure you against hard times, career agents who get some fraction of your future income, and that parents get such a fraction to compensate for raising you.

So as a man with all these hammers staring at this tough nail of drug overdoses, I’m tempted to merge them into one big hammer and take a swing. That is, how would a merged agent who had all these incentives try to deal with a potential drug problem?

Imagine a for-profit experienced expert org approved by the client’s parents when they are a kid, or by the client when they are adult. In a world with with few legal constraints on the contracts that this agent can agree to with clients. An org who probably also represents many of this client’s friends and family. An org who gains from client income, but who must pay when a client is found guilty of a crime, or suffers hard times, pain, disability, or death. An org able to limit client freedoms of privacy, movement, and association, And able to set client punishments for verified events, and to make associated clients co-liable, so that they are all punished together re events involving any one of them.

Such an agent might make sure to get addicts a reliable drug supply, or to have overdose drugs readily available. Or they might forbid clients from mixing with drug types. Or they might test clients regularly, or encourage althetics that conflict with drug use. Or any of a thousand other possible approaches. The whole point is that I don’t have to figure that out; it would be their job to figure out what works.

Now if an org with incentives and powers like that can’t find a way to get clients to avoid becoming drug addicts, or to not overdose if they do, then that would probably either be due to some larger social context that they couldn’t change, or because many individuals just like drugs so much that they are willing to take substantial chances of overdosing.

What if a larger social policy related to drugs or users was a key problem? For example, maybe drug laws are too strict, or too lax. If so, I’d expect these orgs to figure out which and lobby for changes. And given their expertise and incentives, I’d be tempted to listen to them. If you didn’t trust them so much, well then you might consider using futarchy to choose. But honestly I expect such combined agents could handle the problem regardless of larger policies.

In sum, I suggest that the key underlying problem with drug overdoses is that no expert org owns the problem, by being approved by clients yet given clear abilities and incentives to solve the problem. Yes this is a big ask, and this is my generic solution to many problems. Doesn’t mean it won’t work.

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Against Day Fines

Today, more than 30 European and Latin American countries levy penalties using an income-graduated, or “day fine,” model. Under this system, people who break the law pay a fine equivalent to a percentage of their income, rather than a flat fee. … “can be thus seen to be more equal and effective than a system where the amount of fine is fixed.” … American lawmakers have failed to take the idea of income-adjusted fines seriously. (More)

Yes, making crime fines proportional to income can achieve a more progressive taxation. Even so, “day fines” make us worse off compared to using more direct forms of progressive taxation. To see this, consider the case of speeding and other rushed driving offenses.

When people are driving, they trade the risk of an accident against saving time. For example, in their rush to get places, drivers can choose to not take as much time looking for pedestrians before making a right turn, or checking that a lane is empty before changing lanes. And they might drive faster; the rate of fatal accidents per mile seems to go as the cube of driving speed in the city, and rises even faster in rural areas.

Of course if they were just at risk of hurting themselves, we might not care how they made their trade-offs. But most car accidents also involve other cars. So we want a way to encourage drivers to take the harm that their accident might inflict on other drivers into account. Speeding fines, and accident liability, help us to induce such concern. (B.t.w., with vouchers and well-set accident liability, we wouldn’t need speeding fines.)

All else equal, drivers with twice the wages tend to put twice the dollar value on both saving an other minute of driving, and also on preventing another small chance of their own death. So if the dollar amounts of their speeding tickets and liability given an accident were also twice as large, then the dollar amounts on both sides of their tradeoff would all be twice as large. Thus in the same circumstances they would make the same choices to trade time versus the chance of an accident. So in the same car on the same road etc., they’d drive the same speed, and take the same time to check before turning or changing lanes.

However, having two drivers, one with twice the wage of the other, each take the same amount of time to use the same technology to prevent the same amount of harm to others is not efficient. That’s wasteful, just like having a high-wage donor work the line at a soup kitchen, instead of working at their high-wage job a bit more to pay a low-wage worker to work that soup kitchen line. In the driving case, we can keep the car accident rate the same and make both drivers better off, if we have the lower wage person drive more carefully, the higher wage person drive less carefully, and have the high wage person pay the lower some cash.

For example, the median US wage is now ~$16/hr, and workers tend to value commuting time at about half of their wage rate. So imagine that drivers A and B value each their driving time at $9/hr and $18/hr respectively, which is one and two pennies per four seconds. In this case both A and B can be better off, while the total accident rate stays the same, if B gains 1.0 pennies by putting in 2 fewer seconds, A loses 0.5 pennies by putting in 2 more seconds, and B pays A 0.75 pennies.

In general, we use traffic fines and accident liability to buy the time of drivers’ to prevent more accidents. Day-fines proportional to income buy the same amount of time from all drivers in similar circumstances. But we can be better off if we instead buy more time from drivers with lower wages, and less time from drivers with higher wages. And roughly the right amount of time is induced from each via fines and liability that do not vary with income.

You might complain that ordinary constant fines, that do not vary with income, do not include a cash transfer from high to low wage drivers. But that critique only makes sense if we currently had day-fines, and I was proposing to switch to constant fines. In fact constant fines are our status quo, which I’m proposing that we keep. I don’t see we should need transfers to reject an inefficient change and keep things the same.

Note that a similar argument also says it is inefficient to give the same jail time sentence to high and low wage convicts. Jail is the least efficient of all known forms of punishment, and equal duration sentences just makes this worse. We should instead delegate punishment choices to vouchers.


For the math-literate, here’s a simple math model. Consider a driver who drives at speed si, values their life at Vi, causes accidents at rate r(si), faces average speeding fines Ti(si), and faces liability from a fatal accident of Fi. The cost they seek to cut might be written Ci = Vi/si + Ti(si) + r(si)(Vi + Fi). (Note that fine Ti(si) has the same effect as r(si)*Fi.)

Ignoring enforcement costs, the social harm from each driver might be written Si = Vi/si + r(si)(Vi + A), where A is the average over Vi, assuming random accident victims. So we can induce drivers to set si to minimize this social harm by setting each Fi = A. (Setting Ti(si) = r(si)A also works.) This choice also (nearly) minimizes Sumi Si under the constraints that each i will pick si to min Ci, and that we must use transfers to ensure each driver expects to be no worse with our choice than in some arbitrary initial Fi setup.

Note that we could have used any function vi(si) instead of Vi/si here.

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