Tag Archives: Law

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.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

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.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

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.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , , ,

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.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

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.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:

My Old Man Rant

As a 62 year old man, I think I’m entitled to rant once in a while. But instead of “you kids get off my lawn!”, this is my rant:

In principle, economics can help advise most any decisions, like when to wake up, or whether to own a second car. But there are fixed costs to doing explicit econ analysis, and also persuasion costs when you try to influence the decisions of some audience. Thus econ analysis seems most valuable for the biggest decisions whose the audience respects economists for those decisions. Or perhaps many similar but smaller decisions which can all be analyzed at once in the same framework. As we economists are most known for our work evaluating institutions, and as our institutional choices are some of the biggest ones we have, this all suggests our biggest wins come there.

I was first exposed to economics and libertarianism at the same time, and what most excited me about both were similarities to science fiction: they let me imagine very different social worlds. One could see how we could have very different institutions from our current versions, ones that would also plausibly be better. Yes, one couldn’t be very sure that those worlds would be better. But they gave us new things to try, to test and see if they might be better.

When I was young, theory was king, and I tried to master theory. But since then data has come to be king (and queen), even in econ and libertarian circles. Yet I hadn’t realized just how far that trend had gone until this pandemic. To me the obvious theory question a pandemic raises is: what are good general institutions for dealing with pandemics? I wrote a bit on that early on, but was told then that we instead needed immediate help in a crisis. Which I also tried to offer, but which many hated.

Yet it is now two years into what is looking more and more like an eternal pandemic, and I still haven’t see economists or libertarians talking about better pandemic institutions. While this pandemic has done great damage to libertarian sympathies, I’ve only seen libertarians argue that in this particular pandemic, doing nothing officially would have been better than doing what we did. And I’ve seen economists argue about particular parameter settings of the usual government-run system: rules, subsidies and direct government management of masks, lockdowns, tests, and vaccines. Mostly via data, not theory, analysis.

But I’ve not seen work on if there are better institutional alternatives to these two categories, if not for this pandemic then for future ones. Which to me feels like a deep betrayal of what I most value in econ: our ability to imagine, test, and argue for big institutional changes. Even my immediate (and beloved) colleagues haven’t been interested.

To me, the obvious other category is: law. We are better off having law to deal with many harms we can each do to each other, such as assault, slander, and reneging on contracts. Better than ignoring them, and better than having government agencies more directly manage such behaviors. Yes, our society runs law centrally, and likely law would be better if offered privately. But even so, for many harms we are better off because we now apply law over the other two main solutions of doing nothing officially or direct government management.

For law to work for assault, slander, theft, or car accidents, we need it to be often feasible to bring sufficient evidence to convince a court that a particular person harmed a particular other person to a particular degree at a particular event. If so, we can then sufficiently discourage such harms merely via the threat of such legal penalties. At least if we can sufficiently punish those we find guilty, and if we make it easy enough for complainants to subpoena the evidence they need to make their case.

Law today often ensures sufficient punishment via jail and criminal law, which works even if not as well as would vouchers. Law usually allows parties to subpoena any info relevant to a live case, and it so happens that evidence needed to prove assaults and car accidents lasts long enough to let them be so subpoenaed. With vouchers and the level of surveillance likely soon, I don’t actually think we’d need most of our traffic laws; the threat of lawsuits would be enough.

The main policy problem with pandemics is that some people hurt other people by infecting them. Just like they do in assault, slander, theft, and auto accidents. So law could deal fine with pandemics if we could meet the same two conditions: (1) sufficiently able to punish those who found guilty, e.g. via jail or vouchers, and (2) often enough able to easily-enough subpoena sufficient info to show who did what to whom. It is on that last point that economists, and lawyers, have traditionally thrown up their hands and concluded that law can’t deal with pandemics.

That is, people have just assumed that it is not possible to tell who infected who in a pandemic. At least not often enough for law to be our main way to deal with severe pandemics. So for something like the flu we subsidize vaccines and little else, while for covid we go crazy with government managing many related details.

But today with smartphone tracking we can actually see who was close enough to whom when to have infected them. And if we have spit samples from two people infected with covid, we can compare the DNA in their viruses to see if they match. By combining these two pieces of information, one could make a sufficiently strong case that a particular person infected another particular person with the virus at a particular time and place.

So the question that remains is: should we actually induce sufficient information collection and subpoena power, and sufficient punishment ability, to let law deal with pandemics? That is, on the one hand we might make infecting others a punishable crime, require everyone to have their phone track their locations, to report their infections, and to save regular spit samples. And then let government police pour over these details. Which does sound like a pretty intrusive police state, though perhaps still better than the actual police state we’ve had during this last pandemic.

Or, only during an officially declared severe pandemic we could tell everyone that they must either strictly isolate, or, they can get a “pandemic passport” by agreeing to get a voucher, have their phone track their locations, and regularly save spit samples, all available only to be subpoenaed in case of lawsuits by people who claim to be harmed, but not for general browsing by a police state.

Yes, once a pandemic becomes nearly endemic, frequent infection events could clog up courts. But at such scale vouchers would streamline their processes and settle almost all cases out of court. I also know of ways to greatly cut court costs. And damages awarded might greatly fall once one could credibly argue that the victim would likely have caught it soon from someone else.

This idea of legally requiring people to save info so that it can be available to be subpoenaed for future lawsuits is not a particularly new idea. It is just the application to the case of pandemics that would be new. But in our new world of greatly increased surveillance and info of various sorts, we should in fact be thinking about how all that new info might help us solve problems. Like pandemics. Via new institutional changes

Come on, don’t any economists or libertarians out there want to think about new pandemic institutions?

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,

Innovation Liability Nightmare

When I try to imagine how our civilization might rot and decline over the coming millennia, my thoughts first go to innovation, as that has long been our main engine of growth. And while over the years I’ve often struggled to think of ways to raise the rate of innovation, it seems much easier to find ways to cut it; in general, it is easier to break things than improve them.

For example, we might press on one of our legal system’s key flaws. Today, law does far more to discourage A from harming B than to encourage A to help B. B can often sue A for compensation when A harms B, but A can rarely sue B for compensation when A helped B. Law. Today is mostly a system of brakes, not of engines or accelerators.

This is less of a problem for auto accidents or pandemics, where the most important effects of the most important actions are indeed harms. But it is a much bigger problem in innovation, where the main problem is too little incentive to help. In general, society gains far more from innovations than do the people who push for them. So innovation needs engines, not brakes.

The problem is that even events whose effects are overall beneficial will still have some harmful effects. For example, if you invent a new better mousetrap, you may displace previous mousetrap makers. Or by introducing cars, you may hurt people who supplied or managed horses. So what if our legal system makes it easier to sue people for the harms caused by their innovations?

For example, many have complained lately of negative effects of social media, such as increasing anxiety, decreasing privacy, and passing on “fake” news. And just as legal liability has been a big weapon in recent campaigns against harms from tobacco and pain-killers, liability may well also become a big weapon against social media. Wielded especially strongly against those who have most innovated and developed social media.

Imagine that holding innovators liable for the negative effects of their innovations became more widespread. But without increasing the rewards we allow to innovators for the benefits that they bestow. Together with the trend to increased regulation, this might just become enough to kill the innovation goose that lays our golden egg of growth.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Why Not Extend Formal Social Systems?

Once humans had only informal systems of gossip and norm enforcement, but now we also have formal systems of law. These formal legal systems supposedly have many features designed to overcome problems with prior informal norm systems. For example, with gossip we tend to support the claims of our immediate associates without investigating contrary evidence, but we require formal law judges to instead consider evidence from all sides before making their judgments.

We seem to believe these claims that formal law systems overcome informal system failings, because we are quite reluctant to give up our formal systems. Few of us support dropping our formal law systems, and replacing them with informal gossip and mobs. But if so, why do we still use informal norm systems to deal with so many topics, instead of law?

We often say that we rely on informal norms when formal law systems are too slow or expensive. But when offered specific proposals for ways to drastically reduce the time and expense of formal legal systems, so that they can be used more widely, most people seem quite reluctant to endorse such changes. But if law fixes serious problems with informal norms, and if we could replace such norms with law in more places, why not do so?

What makes this even more puzzling is the fact that centuries ago in the U.S. our formal legal systems were much simpler and lower cost. The law was simpler, most people could go to court without a lawyer, and juries made most decisions. All of which did allow the law to deal with more kinds of conflicts. The scope of law has declined over the last few centuries as we’ve allowed law to get more complex and expensive.

One theory is suggested by the idea of “snitches”. Children punish each other for complaining about each other to parents or teachers; they are supposed to instead rely on informal systems among children. Insiders complaining to outsiders can make any group look bad to outsiders, and thus loyalty to a group can require that one keep one’s complaints inside the group. Thus we may prefer informal systems as ways to show loyalty to our groups.

Just like we’ve added formal systems of conflict resolution to our prior informal systems of gossip and norms, we’ve also added formal systems of abstract conversation to our prior informal talk systems.

For example, in academia we have many norms regarding how we present abstract claims and arguments to each other in books and journal articles, and how we evaluate such things. For most of these norms, we have stories about how they fix problems with informal talk. And few academics would endorse getting rid of all these norms and just reverting entirely to informal talk.

And yet, as new mediums and genres of conversation have appeared over the last few decades, we’ve seen relatively little support for extending the usual academic norms into these new places. I expect many would offer knee-jerk explanations saying that academic norms take too much time and energy to apply to these new places. But that seems to me mostly an excuse; I doubt that they’ve actually thought much about actual time and energy costs.

Regarding both dispute resolution and abstract conversation, it seems that we mostly just want to continue with formal institutions in their current scope of application, but not to apply them more widely, even when that becomes feasible. Perhaps because we prefer to show loyalty to the communities that manage our informal norm systems. But loyalty signaling doesn’t seem a good reason to think this is better for the world, or for our larger societies.

Added 10a: Speculative markets are another area where we don’t want to get rid of the ones we have, but we also don’t want more of them, to aggregate info into consensus on more topics. The cost of creating them has come way down, allowing a lot more of them, that we don’t want.

Property registries is yet another area. The cost of managing them have come way down, yet we don’t have official registries for many more kinds of property than we once did.

Perhaps the simplest theory here is that we’ve lost our taste for social change. Whatever was continues, but nothing new shall be added.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,

Who Watches Discrimination Watchers?

Two LA area colleges, UCLA and USC, have a famous rivalry. Imagine that local law firms took sides, preferring to hire graduates from one or the other law school. Imagine further that some USC lawyers at a UCLA-favoring firm complained about this, calling it bias, pure and simple; UCLA grads coordinate to prefer other ULCA grads, independent of their qualifications. These USC lawyers demand a quota system, to ensure equitable hiring. If management resists, they plan to go to the media, to get the public mad about this, and then either use legal or norm/mob pressures to get their way.

Firm leaders say instead that UCLA trains better in their type of law, they can find better people by using personal connections, and many of their clients and collaborating specialists (like detectives) are also UCLA grads. Also, there are productivity advantages from having similar kinds of people, trained similarly, working together.

Now both kinds of theories are plausible. There are often productivity advantages from similar people working together, and yet humans also quite consistently, naturally, and even unconsciously coordinate to use relatively arbitrary features to form mutual-admiration societies that promote each other. And disentangling these effects can be quite hard. The UCLA grads involved may themselves not even know why they prefer other UCLA grads. (Random noise is of course also possible.)

What sort of evidence might we collect to decide? We could look at whether UCLA grads talk directly about preferring each other. We might note when they make mean jokes about USC grads, and prefer to socialize with each other. We could experimentally vary the school label for particular applicants, and see if that changes their chances. But even if that does change chances, defenders of the status quo could attribute this to well-calibrated statistical discrimination, as we can’t usually look into the depths of others’ souls.

We could do statistical regressions to predict who gets hired based on which individual features, and also school. But even if those stats found no significant coefficient on school, after controlling for other features, USC grads might claim that the weights used on which desired features count more are biased by what UCLA grads are taught to do and to value, and it isn’t fair if USC grads aren’t taught the same things.

This same sort of story can of course apply to many other features besides schools. Those who hire may prefer candidates who play particular sports, watch particular TV shows, live in particular neighborhoods, and wear particular styles of dress, or have particular work hour preferences. In all such cases, these choices might be due to productivity advantages, or due to arbitrary mutual promoting coordination. And these same processes can also influence who we choose as friends, lovers, and other kinds of associates.

When the purported feature of coordination is rather specific and local, such as school attended or sport preferred, our usual attitude is to allow local associations to “discriminate”, that is, to make choices correlated with such features. We tend to see competition between such associations as sufficient to discipline those who discriminate badly. If a law firm has a hiring strategy that picks worse lawyers, it will suffer naturally as a result; little need for the rest of us to add punishments. And we also balk at the enormous effort that would be required to impose, monitor, and enforce quotas, or other forms of preferential treatment, on a vast number of such features.

But attitudes on preferential treatments may change as (a) choosers face weaker competition and losses from choosing badly, (b) we consider features that are harder to change, (c) wider social scopes all coordinate to prefer the same features together, (d) many features come together as a package preferred across wider social scopes, (e) the choices made look closer to “dominance” relative to “prestige”, and (f) the features involved are strongly correlated with pretty objective and obvious coordinations to mistreat people that we are confident happened in the past, or in current societies of which we disapprove.

Sometimes we are more sympathetic to intervention, that is, to government or social/norm/mob pressure to insist on something closer to preferential treatment to ensure equity. But note: if we believe in a common tendency of humans to coordinate to form self-promoting mutual-admiration societies, and so are tempted to authorize such intervention to suppress this, we must also believe that this same tendency will induce similar group attempts to coordinate to take control over any powers in charge of such intervention. In order to use that power to directly favor themselves.

For example, if a committee is formed at a LA law firm to decide on the details of a USC vs UCLA quota system, a committee full of UCLA grads would probably make different choices than a committee full of USC grads. Thus these groups would vie for control over this committee. And if the problem was that UCLA grads dominate in the firm, wouldn’t they be most likely to win this contest for control?

The key claim might be that while we worry less about many small uncoordinated self-admiration societies, there is in fact a very large social coalition, spread across many associations, and using a large package of features to promote itself. Making it especially able to resist competitive pressures.

But in this case, I have to worry that this coalition seems especially likely to take control of this intervention process, and then use it to favor themselves. So I don’t feel much more confident about the political coalitions and government agencies that would be in charge of choosing preferential treatment regimes, relative to the many smaller organizations which would instead make such decisions in the lack of such intervention.

I’d rather try to increase the strength of competitive pressures on smaller organizations, to break up this larger coalition. For example, if there were one big law firm in LA that most all lawyers worked for, I’d rather try to break this firm up into many smaller law firms. Or imagine most all judges in LA come from UCLA, are in charge of choosing new LA judges, favor UCLA lawyers in the courtroom, and thus induce LA law firms prefer UCLA grads. In this case I’d rather break up this local cabal of judges, by bringing judges into LA from all across the nation or world.

So what I worry most about are centralized choke points controlled by groups responsible mainly to themselves. Groups who take over these choke points can then arbitrarily favor others like themselves for key positions, and punish any of them for favoring anyone else. Central government agencies, academic discipline leaders, professional associations, accreditation bodies, etc. Even if such people claim that their highest priority is global equity, to resist the worst self-promoting coalitions out there, I just find it hard to trust them.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Prefer Law To Governance

Libertarians are usually adamant that they prefer less government to more. But sadly this tends to make them reluctant to express opinions on choices between different non-zero government scenarios. After all, that might have them seeming to endorse some non-zero government scenario, while their primary desire is to make it clear that they are anti-government. So the main choices on which they are willing to express an opinion is between ones with clearly “more” versus “less” government.

Alas, because there really are other choices that matter in the world. For example, it might matter how local is the government that is involved in any given area of life, even if a local and centralized government would have the same “amount” of involvement. It might also matter how accountable is government to citizens, and on what timescales; governments can be more or less “democratic” even when they have the same scope for controlling citizens.

One big choice that I think matters a lot is between dealing with a problem via civil law, or via governance. Civil law mainly deals with after-the-fact disputes between equal parties, where judges can’t anticipate whom they will judge, and where judges must articulate clear principles of choice. In contrast, governance gives a lot more discretion for officials to give orders regarding future actions, to pick out the people they want to influence, and to treat similar people quite differently.

For example, governance can deal with pollution by issuing detailed regulations on how, where, and by whom pollutants are made and used. In contrast, civil law can deal with pollution by letting those who suffer from it sue those who caused it. Governance can deal with poverty by taking money from whomever it wants, giving money to whomever it wants, and requiring recipients to abide by any lifestyle rules it wants. In contrast, civil law can deal with poverty by requiring siblings and cousins to take care of each other when in dire need.

Governance can deal with crime by managing police, prosecutors, and prisons who decide in great detail who will be be investigated and punished how and for what. In contrast, private bounty hunters and required liability insurance could make these all private choices, leaving to the community only the choice of what is a crime and how strongly it is to be discouraged and discovered.

Governance dealt with the pandemic by issuing regulations about masks, distancing, lockdowns, etc., by limiting and commanding how vaccines can be tested and produced, and then directly managing their distribution. In contrast, law could have dealt with the pandemic only via requiring liability insurance and the preservation of sufficient info to allow the infected to sue those who caused it.

In all these cases the key difference is less about the overall level of government control, and more about the discretion of government officials, which allows favoritism, corruption, and over-confident micro-management. In the choice between law and governance, I usually prefer law. (Though yes of course, I don’t know how to manage a war well via law.)

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,