Burch’s Law

Greg Burch said:

“I think peo­ple should have a right to be stupid and, if they have that right, the mar­ket’s go­ing to re­spond by sup­ply­ing as much stu­pidity as can be sold.”

Greg Burch was speak­ing about sport-util­ity ve­hi­cles, which he feels are very poorly de­signed. Note that Burch was not ad­vo­cat­ing ban­ning SUVs. Burch did not even ad­vo­cate reg­u­lat­ing SUVs. Burch thinks peo­ple should have a right to be stupid. But Burch also openly ac­knowl­edges the real-world con­se­quence of that right, which is that the mar­ket will re­spond by sup­ply­ing as much stu­pidity as can be sold. Per­haps Burch is strongly liber­tar­ian, and sees the case against reg­u­la­tion as a slam-dunk re­gard­less of the con­se­quences, and there­fore has an eas­ier time ac­knowl­edg­ing the down­side of his policy. Or per­haps Burch is just a skil­lful ra­tio­nal­ist. Either way, I hereby can­on­ize his ob­ser­va­tion as Burch’s Law.

Burch’s Law is a spe­cial case of a more gen­eral rule: Just be­cause your ethics re­quire an ac­tion doesn’t mean the uni­verse will ex­empt you from the con­se­quences. If the uni­verse were fair, like a sym­pa­thetic hu­man, the uni­verse would un­der­stand that you had over­rid­ing eth­i­cal rea­sons for your ac­tion, and would ex­empt you from the usual penalties. The judge would rule “jus­tifi­able homi­cide” in­stead of “mur­der” and ex­empt you from the usual prison term. Well, the uni­verse isn’t fair and it won’t ex­empt you from the con­se­quences. We know the equa­tions of physics in enough de­tail to know that the equa­tions don’t con­tain any quan­tities re­flec­tive of eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions.

We don’t send au­to­mo­bile man­u­fac­tur­ers to jail, even though man­u­fac­tured cars kill an es­ti­mated 1.2 mil­lion peo­ple per year wor­ld­wide. (Roughly 2% of the an­nual plane­tary death rate.) Not ev­ery­one who dies in an au­to­mo­bile ac­ci­dent is some­one who de­cided to drive a car. The tally of ca­su­alties in­cludes pedes­tri­ans. It in­cludes minor chil­dren who had to be pushed scream­ing into the car on the way to school. And yet we still man­u­fac­ture au­to­mo­biles, be­cause, well, we’re in a hurry. I don’t even dis­agree with this de­ci­sion. I drive a car my­self. The point is that the con­se­quences don’t change no mat­ter how good the eth­i­cal jus­tifi­ca­tion sounds. The peo­ple who die in au­to­mo­bile ac­ci­dents are still dead. We can sus­pend the jail penalty, but we can’t sus­pend the laws of physics.

Hu­man­ity hasn’t had much luck sus­pend­ing the laws of eco­nomics, ei­ther. If peo­ple have a right to be stupid, the mar­ket will re­spond by sup­ply­ing all the stu­pidity that can be sold.