« Energy Policy | Main | A Crisis Of Faith? »

Outliers and Paternalism

I have this pet theory that since taking over the LA Times editorial section Michael Kinsley has implemented a plan of only publishing the least-persuasive conservative writers he can find as a clever, covert means of discrediting the right. Certainly, today's totally inane David Gelertner column seems to bolster that theory. Gelertner's "arguments" are too silly to be worth rebutting in particular, but it's worth saying something about the general question here. Gelertner seems to be objecting to any sort of paternalistic regulation whatsoever. He does so not on principled libertarian grounds (i.e., "paternalism is always wrong because people should be free") but on the grounds that any paternalistic policy can only be justified on the grounds that people in general are too dumb to make decisions for themselves and that this is empirically false.

So let's consider an example. Lets say one of my libertarian friends were to propose the total deregulation of heroin. This not only means heroin users and dealers won't be thrown in jail. There will be no more heroin dealers. Instead, you'll buy heroin at your local supermarket and it will come in pretty packages. It'll be sold by Heroin, Inc. and Smackcorp and they'll advertise during children's television shows, sporing events, popular sitcoms, in magazines and on billboards, etc., etc., etc. Most people -- liberal or conservative -- would think this is a pretty bad idea. Why? Well, because it would lead to a lot more heroin addiction. And heroin addiction is bad. But is the point here that "people" are too stupid to avoid heroin addiction? Of course not. No matter what kind of stupid policy we adopted most people still wouldn't take heroin, and some people who tried heroin would avoid becoming addicts.

At the same time, even with heroin being illegal and everything, some people still become heroin addicts even though it's obviously a bad idea to become addicted to heroin. The more you deregulate heroin sales, the more people will become addicted. If you totally deregulated heroin marketing, you'd get a lot more heroin addiction, even though most people would still be addiction-free. Paternalism usually works like this. You're concerned about outliers. It's a big country. Even if only 15 percent of the population were to do something silly, that would still be over 30 million people -- more than enough to worry about.

April 29, 2005 | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8345160fd69e200d8345877e369e2

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Outliers and Paternalism:

» LA Times Bashing from Political Animal
LA TIMES BASHING....I'm outsourcing today's critique of my hometown newspaper: Above the fold on Page 1 the LA Times repeats the oft-debunked claim that Sudan tried to turn over Osama bin Laden to Bill Clinton in 1996 but Clinton turned... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 29, 2005 1:19:24 PM

» Gelernter from Unfogged
David Gelernter, who appears to be far dumber than anyone on Yale's faculty has any right to be, offers up a very odd piece in the LA Times. (Yglesias has a bit on this, if you want it and if you like biscuit conditionals.) Anyway, I was intrigued by G... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 29, 2005 3:17:46 PM

» Meet Matt Yglesias: The New Prohibitionist from Mirror Universe
Your argument against free and available heroin is the same argument that the prohibtionists gave to keep liquor off the shelves. It was a silly argument, unless you're trying to create a massive criminal underground. I've heard that it props up the ... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 29, 2005 6:10:28 PM

» Great minds think alike from ProfessorBainbridge.com
Matt Yglesias:I have this pet theory that since taking over the LA Times editorial section Michael Kinsley has implemented a plan of only publishing the least-persuasive conservative writers he can find as a clever, covert means of discrediting the rig... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 29, 2005 6:39:00 PM

» Gelernter from Unfogged
David Gelernter, who appears to be far dumber than anyone on Yale's faculty has any right to be, offers up a very odd piece in the LA Times. (Yglesias has a bit on this, if you want it and if you like biscuit conditionals.) Anyway, I was intrigued by G... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 15, 2006 2:29:37 PM

Comments

Why is "heroin addiction...bad"? (Besides wear and tear on the user's physic)...thekeez

Posted by: Jeff Keezel | Apr 29, 2005 11:29:21 AM

I wonder if libertarianism/Ayn Randi-ism and absolutist pro-lifeness are phases that most white males go through, and only those non-simpletons with half a brain can mature out of.

Posted by: Al (not) | Apr 29, 2005 11:38:47 AM

Just an empirical question I've often wondered about. Most heroin deaths I know about are from tainted heroin or overdoses caused by inconsistencies in the strength of the street product. And much of the harm to non-users results from having to be involved in crime to get your fix.
If someone got a regular supply of clean, consistent-strength heroin, could he be a healthy, functional, and productive citizen with a peculiar habit, or would even that person suffer serious health problems over time?

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Apr 29, 2005 11:47:27 AM

> Why is "heroin addiction...bad"? (Besides wear and
> tear on the user's physic)...thekeez

I was going to go down the road of adults vs. minors, but I realized that essentially confirms Matt's point: the adult/minor distinction is socally constructed and regulatorily enforced also.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Apr 29, 2005 11:48:27 AM

Just to second some of the usual counterarguments, much of the real societal problem with heroin addiction is caused by the fallout: shootouts in neighborhoods over the rewards of the illegal trade, and robbery to cover the cost of paying for one's expensive illegal habit. Many people are stupid, but if there are ways to reduce how much their stupidity directly harms others, I'm for it, even if it comes from fewer government prohibitions. And if heroin takes its toll on health? Well, even in our paternalistic society, there aren't really all that many prohibitions on unhealthy behavior.

I think a better example of what MY is trying to get at might be anti-pollution regulations, where it's deregulation that adversely affects innocent people.

Posted by: mds | Apr 29, 2005 11:55:51 AM

I had Gelernter for a notorious "gut" class my senior year at Yale--basically a history of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, but made for people who didn't know shit about computer science. Anyway, it was a gut, but it was tremendously easy, and it was clear Gelernter is profoundly intelligent, at least as it pertains to his areas of expertise. And, the fact he was unabombed in the late 70s (and his hands are deformed as a result) is also an interesting aside.

But, I, too, am amazed at the absolute idiocy in his political columns. Calling paternatlism of the type he's talking about "communistic" sounds like the ravings of some 13-year-old whose dad is a Bircher. In fact, I'm somewhat embarrassed I respected him as a professor. but, it did teach me about the Turing Test and Godel's impossibility theorem (but I dont' understand that one still!) and was an easy A.

Posted by: Goldberg | Apr 29, 2005 12:01:17 PM

"...they'll advertise during children's television shows, sporing events, popular sitcoms, in magazines and on billboards, etc..."

Because in the brave, new world of readily available heroin, humans will have evolved to the point of reproduction by the mass release of microscopic seed pods. "You coming to the Sporing Event, Marsha?" "I'm so there, Steve!"

Posted by: Grumpy | Apr 29, 2005 12:04:25 PM

Gelertner doesn't even understand the basic facts of the Social Security debate

He writes,
"because, after all, he wants to let you keep a great big whopping 4% of your payroll taxes in a private account instead of handing over every cent to the government."

Is Gelertner really that ignorant???

As the incomparable one has pointed out over and over,"But under this plan, workers aren’t allowed to divest four percent of their payroll taxes; they’re allowed to divest four percent of their wages. This is a rather big chunk of their payroll taxes; in fact, it’s almost two-thirds of the 6.2 percent workers currently submit." http://www.dailyhowler.com/dh121604.shtml


Posted by: Morris | Apr 29, 2005 12:04:32 PM

If someone got a regular supply of clean, consistent-strength heroin, could he be a healthy, functional, and productive citizen with a peculiar habit, or would even that person suffer serious health problems over time?

Sheesh dumbass (sorry, I usually don't get personal, but you really are a dumbass), don't you know any alcoholics or at least heard about the disease of alcoholism? If you think alcoholics are "healthy, functional, and productive citizen[s] with a peculiar habit" then by all means lets legalize heroin, which is exponentially more addictive than alcohol, and unlike alcohol, is ingested only to achieve intoxication.

Decriminalization may reduce crime, but don't pretend that it will be good for the addicts' mental or physical health or that they will be able to function in society, as the European countries that have decriminalized drugs have discovered. Unless you give them the drugs and provide them with social services, they will be unable to support their habit and will be reduced to crime to buy their drugs and the necessities of life.

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Apr 29, 2005 12:10:08 PM

Galertner wrote one of the best books I ever read (1939: The Lost World of the Fair), and to preserve that sense of pleasure, I have ignored everything he has written since then.

Posted by: Rob Salkowitz | Apr 29, 2005 12:14:58 PM

Good theory about Kinsley.
Gelertner certainly displays ignorance about the real world works.

Posted by: David Sucher | Apr 29, 2005 12:15:26 PM

Of course Matt's argument proves way too much and is in essence a paean to the nanny state. For example, to take Freder's example, Matt's reasoning would of course justify criminalizing alcohol -- because though most of us can use it without net adverse societal consequences, some of us cannot.

Posted by: Abadaba | Apr 29, 2005 12:18:16 PM

As of now, there are under a 100,000 heroin related hospital vists a year (that have been tracked; this number was from the late 1990s, so...). The big, unanswerable question is to what degree that would rise under decriminalization. Everyone (rightly) maligns the prohibition of alcohol, but the number of deaths from cirrosis did rise after repeal (thought probably not to the point that we would have chosen otherwise).

Gerlenter's embarrassing. Seriously. I suppose the best way one could paraphrase his argument is that everyone, in fact, acts rationally, and thus the Democrats are wrong for arguing otherwise. Such a "I read the Fountainhead once" argument has very little to say about what happens when many people don't act rationally (i.e. use heroin or don't save enough money for retirement). Most Americans would not be satisfied with the "throw them to the wolves" argument.

"Many professors believed in Marxism right up to the point where Communist China itself bailed out in disgust....Professors see the world in terms of experts and students: "We are smart; you are dumb."

Actually, I _don't_ see my students as dumb; why would I waste my time teaching if I did? If any 18-year old freshman was asked to write an opinion column, however, for any professor in the nation (of any ideology), and turned this steaming pile, I doubt he'd do well. Shit, would Gelenter even accept this crap in his own class? Must explain why he's a "gut" course...

Posted by: go vols | Apr 29, 2005 12:23:05 PM

Abadaba,
Hard to know if you are being serious, but in case you are:

"Matt's reasoning would of course justify criminalizing alcohol"

no, Matt's reasoning justifies criminalizing alcohol if doing so will be beneficial. Matt's reasoning is just asserting the viability of that option if it is effective.

Posted by: theCoach | Apr 29, 2005 12:26:08 PM

People in general are too dumb to make decisions for themselves. The last election is an undeniable proof of that. Why can't we just admit it once and for all, and get on with the program?

Posted by: abb1 | Apr 29, 2005 12:26:39 PM

Abadaba...

Um, no, it wouldn't, because Matt isn't the one arguing an absolutist position. After all, the current norms of barring alcohol sale to minors and strict laws against drunk driving would also fall under Gelertner's definition of paternalism.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 29, 2005 12:31:42 PM

MY + FF does not necessarily yield prohibition redux.

It depends on how MY sets the triggers: what percentage of the population has to be susceptible, leading to what amounts of harm to what other percentage of the population, etc.

So he could argue that in the case of heroin, the number of susceptibles is high enough, the damage to society great enough, etc., to trigger reasonable paternalism, whereas in the alcohol case the numbers don't hit the threshold.

After all--unless you invoke numbers at some point, you really *are* left with the choice between no regulation and universal regulation, and both of these are pretty ridiculous. But that's exactly MY's point against Gelernter.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Apr 29, 2005 12:32:04 PM

Gelertner should move to Sierra Leone. I hear it's a libertarian paradise.

Posted by: praktike | Apr 29, 2005 12:33:33 PM

Matt is thinking along the same conspiratorial lines I am as to why Kinsley has allowed this childish buffoon a permanent column. (Much the same reason, I suspect, that the Wall Street Journal gave a column to Alexander Cockburn for so long.)

Democrats, it seems, are horrid because "Scratch a Democrat and you find a professor." An anti-intellectual professor...well, every college faculty has its small share of cranks.

The awesome array of additional holes in Gelernter's "defense" (if that's the word for it) of "non-paternalistic private retirement accounts" will all no doubt be pointed out by the other contributors on this thread. But note also Gelernter's indignant foamings about those horrid people who "don't even think Americans should be allowed to pick their own children's schools." Indeed a lot of us don't, and we are highly justified in not trusting them -- as pointed out by the decidedly non-liberal Michael Kelly in the New Republic 8 years ago, in his account of a charter school unanimously licensed by the DC Board of Education which then turned out to be the nest of a bunch of slobberingly anti-Semitic black racists ("Jews! Jews!"):

http://www.tnr.com/archive/1996/12/123096/trb123096.html

To quote Kelly: "If you say that the taxpayers should support the Little Sisters of the Poor to run their private school as they see fit, without any real oversight by the elected representatives of the taxpayers, you must also say that we should pay for Mary A.T. Anigbo to run a place where black children learn that white people are their enemies, and act accordingly." Unless the government monitors and regulates the curricula of private or charter schools very carefully, we are going to turn this country into a splinted Yugoslav-style mess of interest groups and belief groups whose kids know nothing whatsoever about the Americans in the other groups except that they hate them.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | Apr 29, 2005 12:34:12 PM

That's "splintered", not "splinted". Somebody else will have to do the splinting for us afterwards. (Maybe peacekeeping troops from Serbia, as The Onion once suggested.)

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | Apr 29, 2005 12:38:14 PM

Only Rush should be allowed to be a drug addict!

Posted by: Al (not) | Apr 29, 2005 12:39:18 PM

The good Professor quotes Michelle Malkin. So how could he be wrong?

Posted by: GETREAL | Apr 29, 2005 12:43:52 PM

Look,
There are drugs that are a LOT more addictive than heroin, which if taken only a few times, are very hard to kick. Crystal meth comes to mind. Modern chemistry has the ability to produce more and more addictive substances.
People need to be protected, because they can't take the TIME to find out the facts about all products they use. Suppose someone starts selling crystal as an over the counter aphrodisiac---who is supposed to know that the drug is dangerously addictive? If there were a new drug whose effects people did not know, what then? Without the FDA, people would be forced to simply guess.
It's NOT a matter of people being dumb---it's about protecting people from the deceptive practices of others. The same goes for food and other consumer products as well. People who want to gut government regulation are just insane.

Posted by: marky | Apr 29, 2005 12:46:42 PM

Must keep up..

Gratuitous nitpick I know.. but the population is now just a hair under 296 million. So 15% is 44.4 million.

http://www.census.gov/population/www/popclockus.html

Posted by: Dan Ryan | Apr 29, 2005 12:46:55 PM

Your Kinsley theory leaves unexplained why the Wall Street Journal's editorial page also features unpersuasive conservative idiots.

Posted by: Dan Ryan | Apr 29, 2005 12:49:20 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.