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.