Beware Trivial Inconveniences

The Great Fire­wall of China. A mas­sive sys­tem of cen­tral­ized cen­sor­ship purg­ing the Chi­nese ver­sion of the In­ter­net of all po­ten­tially sub­ver­sive con­tent. Gen­er­ally agreed to be a great tech­ni­cal achieve­ment and poli­ti­cal suc­cess even by the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple who find it morally ab­hor­rent.

I spent a few days in China. I got around it at the In­ter­net cafe by us­ing a free on­line proxy. Ac­tual Chi­nese peo­ple have dozens of ways of get­ting around it with a min­i­mum of tech­ni­cal knowl­edge or just the abil­ity to read some in­struc­tions.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment isn’t los­ing any sleep over this (al­though they also don’t lose any sleep over mur­der­ing poli­ti­cal dis­si­dents, so maybe they’re just very sound sleep­ers). Their the­ory is that by mak­ing it a lit­tle in­con­ve­nient and time-con­sum­ing to view sub­ver­sive sites, they will dis­cour­age ca­sual ex­plo­ra­tion. No one will bother to cir­cum­vent it un­less they already se­ri­ously dis­trust the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment and are speci­fi­cally look­ing for for­eign web­sites, and these peo­ple prob­a­bly know what the for­eign web­sites are go­ing to say any­way.

Think about this for a sec­ond. The hu­man long­ing for free­dom of in­for­ma­tion is a ter­rible and won­der­ful thing. It delineates a pivotal differ­ence be­tween men­tal eman­ci­pa­tion and slav­ery. It has launched protests, re­bel­lions, and rev­olu­tions. Thou­sands have de­voted their lives to it, thou­sands of oth­ers have even died for it. And it can be stopped dead in its tracks by re­quiring peo­ple to search for “how to set up proxy” be­fore view­ing their anti-gov­ern­ment web­site.

I was re­minded of this re­cently by Eliezer’s Less Wrong Progress Re­port. He men­tioned how sur­prised he was that so many peo­ple were post­ing so much stuff on Less Wrong, when very few peo­ple had ever taken ad­van­tage of Over­com­ing Bias’ policy of ac­cept­ing con­tri­bu­tions if you emailed them to a mod­er­a­tor and the mod­er­a­tor ap­proved. Ap­par­ently all us folk brim­ming with ideas for posts didn’t want to deal with the ag­gra­va­tion.

Okay, in my case at least it was a bit more than that. There’s a sense of go­ing out on a limb and draw­ing at­ten­tion to your­self, of ar­ro­gantly claiming some sort of equiv­alence to Robin Han­son and Eliezer Yud­kowsky. But it’s still in­ter­est­ing that this po­ten­tial em­bar­rass­ment and awk­ward­ness was enough to keep the sev­eral dozen peo­ple who have blogged on here so far from send­ing that “I have some­thing I’d like to post...” email.

Com­pa­nies fre­quently offer “free re­bates”. For ex­am­ple, an $800 tele­vi­sion with a $200 re­bate. There are a few rea­sons com­pa­nies like re­bates, but one is that you’ll be at­tracted to the tele­vi­sion be­cause it ap­pears to have a net cost only $600, but then filling out the pa­per­work to get the re­bate is too in­con­ve­nient and you won’t get around to it. This is ba­si­cally a free $200 for filling out an an­noy­ing form, but com­pa­nies can pre­dict that cus­tomers will con­tinu­ally fail to com­plete it. This might make some sense if you’re a high-pow­ered lawyer or some­one else whose time is ex­tremely valuable, but most of us have ab­solutely no ex­cuse.

One last ex­am­ple: It’s be­come a tru­ism that peo­ple spend more when they use credit cards than when they use money. This par­tic­u­lar tru­ism hap­pens to be true: in a study by Pr­elec and Simester1, auc­tion par­ti­ci­pants bid twice as much for the same prize when us­ing credit than when us­ing cash. The triv­ial step of get­ting the money and hand­ing it over has a ma­jor in­hibitory effect on your spend­ing habits.

I don’t know of any unify­ing psy­cholog­i­cal the­ory that ex­plains our prob­lem with triv­ial in­con­ve­niences. It seems to have some­thing to do with loss aver­sion, and with the brain’s gen­eral use of emo­tion-based hacks in­stead of se­ri­ous cost-benefit anal­y­sis. It might be linked to akra­sia; for ex­am­ple, you might not have enough willpower to go ahead with the un­pleas­ant ac­tion of filling in a re­bate form, and your brain may as­sign it low pri­or­ity be­cause it’s hard to imag­ine the con­nec­tion be­tween the ac­tion and the re­ward.

But these triv­ial in­con­ve­niences have ma­jor policy im­pli­ca­tions. Coun­tries like China that want to op­press their cit­i­zens are already us­ing “soft” op­pres­sion to make it an­noy­ingly difficult to ac­cess sub­ver­sive in­for­ma­tion. But there are also benefits for gov­ern­ments that want to help their cit­i­zens.

”Soft pa­ter­nal­ism” means a lot of things to a lot of differ­ent peo­ple. But one of the most in­ter­est­ing ver­sions is the idea of “opt-out” gov­ern­ment poli­cies. For ex­am­ple, it would be nice if ev­ery­one put money into a pen­sion scheme. Left to their own de­vices, many ig­no­rant or lazy peo­ple might never get around to start­ing a pen­sion, and in or­der to pre­vent these peo­ple’s fi­nan­cial ruin, there is strong a moral ar­gu­ment for a gov­ern­ment-man­dated pen­sion scheme. But there’s also a strong liber­tar­ian ar­gu­ment against that idea; if some­one for rea­sons of their own doesn’t want a pen­sion, or wants a differ­ent kind of pen­sion, their sta­tus as a free cit­i­zen should give them that right.

The “soft pa­ter­nal­ist” solu­tion is to have a gov­ern­ment-man­dated pen­sion scheme, but al­low in­di­vi­d­u­als to opt-out of it af­ter sign­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate amount of pa­per­work. Most peo­ple, the the­ory goes, would re­main in the pen­sion scheme, be­cause they un­der­stand they’re bet­ter off with a pen­sion and it was only laz­i­ness that pre­vented them from get­ting one be­fore. And any­one who ac­tu­ally goes through the trou­ble of opt­ing out of the gov­ern­ment scheme would ei­ther be the sort of in­tel­li­gent per­son who has a good rea­son not to want a pen­sion, or else de­serve what they get2.

This also re­minds me of Robin’s IQ-gated, test-re­quiring would-have-been-banned store, which would dis­cour­age peo­ple from cer­tain drugs with­out mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble for the true be­liev­ers to get their hands on them. I sug­gest such a store be lo­cated way on the out­skirts of town ac­cessible only by a pot­holed road with a sin­gle traf­fic light that changes once per pres­i­den­tial ad­minis­tra­tion, have a surly clerk who speaks heav­ily ac­cented English, and be open be­tween the hours of two and four on week­days.


1: See Jonah Lehrer’s book How We De­cide. In fact, do this any­way. It’s very good.

2: Note also the clever use of the sta­tus quo bias here.