Policy Debates Should Not Appear One-Sided

Robin Han­son pro­posed stores where banned prod­ucts could be sold.1 There are a num­ber of ex­cel­lent ar­gu­ments for such a policy—an in­her­ent right of in­di­vi­d­ual liberty, the ca­reer in­cen­tive of bu­reau­crats to pro­hibit ev­ery­thing, leg­is­la­tors be­ing just as bi­ased as in­di­vi­d­u­als. But even so (I replied), some poor, hon­est, not over­whelm­ingly ed­u­cated mother of five chil­dren is go­ing to go into these stores and buy a “Dr. Snakeoil’s Sulfuric Acid Drink” for her arthri­tis and die, leav­ing her or­phans to weep on na­tional tele­vi­sion.

I was just mak­ing a fac­tual ob­ser­va­tion. Why did some peo­ple think it was an ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of reg­u­la­tion?

On ques­tions of sim­ple fact (for ex­am­ple, whether Earthly life arose by nat­u­ral se­lec­tion) there’s a le­gi­t­i­mate ex­pec­ta­tion that the ar­gu­ment should be a one-sided bat­tle; the facts them­selves are ei­ther one way or an­other, and the so-called “bal­ance of ev­i­dence” should re­flect this. In­deed, un­der the Bayesian defi­ni­tion of ev­i­dence, “strong ev­i­dence” is just that sort of ev­i­dence which we only ex­pect to find on one side of an ar­gu­ment.

But there is no rea­son for com­plex ac­tions with many con­se­quences to ex­hibit this onesid­ed­ness prop­erty. Why do peo­ple seem to want their policy de­bates to be one-sided?

Poli­tics is the mind-kil­ler. Ar­gu­ments are sol­diers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must sup­port all ar­gu­ments of that side, and at­tack all ar­gu­ments that ap­pear to fa­vor the en­emy side; oth­er­wise it’s like stab­bing your sol­diers in the back. If you abide within that pat­tern, policy de­bates will also ap­pear one-sided to you—the costs and draw­backs of your fa­vored policy are en­emy sol­diers, to be at­tacked by any means nec­es­sary.

One should also be aware of a re­lated failure pat­tern: think­ing that the course of Deep Wis­dom is to com­pro­mise with perfect even­ness be­tween whichever two policy po­si­tions re­ceive the most air­time. A policy may le­gi­t­i­mately have lop­sided costs or benefits. If policy ques­tions were not tilted one way or the other, we would be un­able to make de­ci­sions about them. But there is also a hu­man ten­dency to deny all costs of a fa­vored policy, or deny all benefits of a dis­fa­vored policy; and peo­ple will there­fore tend to think policy trade­offs are tilted much fur­ther than they ac­tu­ally are.

If you al­low shops that sell oth­er­wise banned prod­ucts, some poor, hon­est, poorly ed­u­cated mother of five kids is go­ing to buy some­thing that kills her. This is a pre­dic­tion about a fac­tual con­se­quence, and as a fac­tual ques­tion it ap­pears rather straight­for­ward—a sane per­son should read­ily con­fess this to be true re­gard­less of which stance they take on the policy is­sue. You may also think that mak­ing things ille­gal just makes them more ex­pen­sive, that reg­u­la­tors will abuse their power, or that her in­di­vi­d­ual free­dom trumps your de­sire to med­dle with her life. But, as a mat­ter of sim­ple fact, she’s still go­ing to die.

We live in an un­fair uni­verse. Like all pri­mates, hu­mans have strong nega­tive re­ac­tions to per­ceived un­fair­ness; thus we find this fact stress­ful. There are two pop­u­lar meth­ods of deal­ing with the re­sult­ing cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. First, one may change one’s view of the facts—deny that the un­fair events took place, or edit the his­tory to make it ap­pear fair.2 Se­cond, one may change one’s moral­ity—deny that the events are un­fair.

Some liber­tar­i­ans might say that if you go into a “banned prod­ucts shop,” pass­ing clear warn­ing la­bels that say Things In This Store May Kill You, and buy some­thing that kills you, then it’s your own fault and you de­serve it. If that were a moral truth, there would be no down­side to hav­ing shops that sell banned prod­ucts. It wouldn’t just be a net benefit, it would be a one-sided trade­off with no draw­backs.

Others ar­gue that reg­u­la­tors can be trained to choose ra­tio­nally and in har­mony with con­sumer in­ter­ests; if those were the facts of the mat­ter then (in their moral view) there would be no down­side to reg­u­la­tion.

Like it or not, there’s a birth lot­tery for in­tel­li­gence—though this is one of the cases where the uni­verse’s un­fair­ness is so ex­treme that many peo­ple choose to deny the facts. The ex­per­i­men­tal ev­i­dence for a purely ge­netic com­po­nent of 0.6–0.8 is over­whelming, but even if this were to be de­nied, you don’t choose your parental up­bring­ing or your early schools ei­ther.

I was raised to be­lieve that deny­ing re­al­ity is a moral wrong. If I were to en­gage in wish­ful op­ti­mism about how Sulfuric Acid Drink was likely to benefit me, I would be do­ing some­thing that I was warned against and raised to re­gard as un­ac­cept­able. Some peo­ple are born into en­vi­ron­ments—we won’t dis­cuss their genes, be­cause that part is too un­fair—where the lo­cal witch doc­tor tells them that it is right to have faith and wrong to be skep­ti­cal. In all good­will, they fol­low this ad­vice and die. Un­like you, they weren’t raised to be­lieve that peo­ple are re­spon­si­ble for their in­di­vi­d­ual choices to fol­low so­ciety’s lead. Do you re­ally think you’re so smart that you would have been a proper sci­en­tific skep­tic even if you’d been born in 500 CE? Yes, there is a birth lot­tery, no mat­ter what you be­lieve about genes.

Say­ing “Peo­ple who buy dan­ger­ous prod­ucts de­serve to get hurt!” is not tough-minded. It is a way of re­fus­ing to live in an un­fair uni­verse. Real tough-mind­ed­ness is say­ing, “Yes, sulfuric acid is a hor­rible painful death, and no, that mother of five chil­dren didn’t de­serve it, but we’re go­ing to keep the shops open any­way be­cause we did this cost-benefit calcu­la­tion.” Can you imag­ine a poli­ti­cian say­ing that? Nei­ther can I. But in­so­far as economists have the power to in­fluence policy, it might help if they could think it pri­vately—maybe even say it in jour­nal ar­ti­cles, suit­ably dressed up in poly­syl­labis­mic obfus­ca­tion­al­iza­tion so the me­dia can’t quote it.

I don’t think that when some­one makes a stupid choice and dies, this is a cause for cel­e­bra­tion. I count it as a tragedy. It is not always helping peo­ple, to save them from the con­se­quences of their own ac­tions; but I draw a moral line at cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. If you’re dead, you can’t learn from your mis­takes.

Un­for­tu­nately the uni­verse doesn’t agree with me. We’ll see which one of us is still stand­ing when this is over.

1Robin Han­son et al., “The Han­son-Hughes De­bate on ‘The Crack of a Fu­ture Dawn,’” 16, no. 1 (2007): 99–126, http://​​jet­press.org/​​v16/​​han­son.pdf.

2This is me­di­ated by the af­fect heuris­tic and the just-world fal­lacy.