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Russian Dolls

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Incentive structures are created within other incentive structures, and at the outermost edge is only the initial distribution of the capability for force.

Should fast food restaurants be allowed to sell food without posting calorie content? To market unhealthy food to children?

Should garbage cans be labeled “Landfill”?

Should manufacturers be allowed to sell caffeinated alcoholic beverages? To whom should alcoholic beverages be sold?

Should prostitution be legal? Drugs? Weapons? Nukes? Divorce?

What should the age of contractual capacity be? The age of sexual consent?

What should be the consequences of a breach of contract?

Are taxes the same as stealing?

A System of Incentives

The field of law & economics recognizes that a system of law is a system of incentives. We adjust human welfare by adjusting the incentive structures in which humans operate.

Any incentive structure, including but not limited to a legal system, helps people predict how they will be treated, and thus how to plan their actions. Any incentive structure will do, more or less, for this purpose. But some individuals will always be treated sub-optimally by any incentive structure. The only certainty is that some will live in misery – there is always plenty of misery to go around. But who should be miserable, and how miserable, and why?

By creating or adjusting incentive structures, planners assume that they know what is best for human flourishing. Creating and adjusting incentive structures is an inherently epistemically ungenerous activity. This, I think, is the main problem with Bryan Caplan’s take on behavioral economics, which I’ve previously summarized thus:

Bryan Caplan thinks that the solution [to the problem of men not wanting to work] is to not have soup kitchens. That is, to make everybody so miserable that they HAVE to work, or else.

Caplan (and his coauthor) “know” that it’s better for people to live as close to a “productive,” middle-class existence as possible; so they argue we should adjust the incentive structure to give the poor fewer choices so that they are forced to make the “right” choice.

The search for a just, ethically defensible incentive structure requires an attempt to get outside of any single individual or group’s notion of what is best – to do what’s best for everyone, not just the would-be incentivizer and his cronies.

The Russian Doll Problem

In some sense, incentive structures compete with each other (e.g., capitalism v. communism). But even competing incentive structures exist within a wider incentive structure. The governments of countries may be seen as competing incentive structures, existing within the wider incentive structure of the world. Organized crime and government are competing systems of incentive, and operate within the wider incentive structure of the natural world. This is true even if the background incentive structure is merely “might makes right” – which is probably the only possible top-level, ultimate incentive structure.

Creating and adjusting incentive structures is at best hubris, at worst tyranny.

Some (libertarians, the religious, and advocates of democracy, for example) ignore this problem by assuming a privileged status for some kind of incentive structure.

Privileged Incentive Structure: God Said So

Some of the most successful religions worldwide have a built-in legal system and/or incentive structure. For this reason, some religions function very well as technologies that promote trade. Sharia in Islam, Gemora in Judaism, and Canon law in Christianity are the most well-known examples.

Religions are not written texts. As my rather religious Jewish boyfriend puts it, the written text (e.g. Mishnah) is like a constitution – but a government is not its constitution. The United States has a tiny little constitution, but the system of incentives is largely given by the enormous system of courts and police that interpret and enforce the written text.

Adherents of these religions get around the Russian dolls problem of incentive structures by assuming a privileged status for their enshrined incentive structure on the basis that this incentive structure was ordained by God.

Privileged Incentive Structure: The Market Said So

Libertarians attribute a privileged status to the “free market.” However, a market exists within a context of a wider incentive structure (the initial distribution, human nature, scarcity). Markets are not ever really “free” – there must be a wider incentive structure to contain the market, even if this incentive structure is merely “might makes right.”

Privileged Incentive Structure: The People Said So

A novel solution to the Russian Dolls problem of incentive structures is: let the participants choose their own incentive structure. Various forms of democracy claim to embody this solution.

Ultimately, this is no more than creating a market to determine the rules for the market. “One person-one vote” is, ultimately, as arbitrary as “one dollar, one vote” (or “one bullet, one vote,” for that matter). Why is a person the proper unit of democracy? Why adults and not children? Why present people and not future people? What about the rights of those in the minority position on anything? Why is it fair for a majority to impose its will on a minority? Democracy is, at best, a caricature of consent.

Prior to garnering fame as an authoritarian parenting enthusiast, law and economics scholar Amy Chua wrote a book (World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability) explaining some of the problems with “democracy-as-privileged-incentive-structure” – especially when combined with a purportedly free market. In the real world, economic advantage tends to not be spread equally among people – or randomly. Advantages, whether intellectual or material, tend to be clustered within identifiable groups of people, and these groups tend to attempt to manipulate the system of incentives to increase this clustering (that is, to promote inequality). Unfortunately, the red-in-tooth-and-claw nature of the background incentive structure is frequently revealed when “market-dominant minorities” are punished for their inequality-promoting success in often gruesome ways by the (ethnic) majority.

Is the “free market” right, in this case? Should market-dominant minorities, racial or otherwise, own and keep an ever-growing majority share of the world’s property? Or is “democracy” right? Should the majority be able to punish the market-dominant few? The conflict, rarely acknowledged, demonstrates that neither is an inherently good incentive structure.

The nature of our universe prevents an ethically sound incentive structure from existing.

It’s the initial distribution all the way down.

Misery, or suffering, might be defined as that of which there is negative scarcity. Not only is there an abundance, but there is an abundance and its consumption is not optional. I think it is more humane to think of economics in terms of a system for the distribution of misery, rather than the distribution of scarce, utility-promoting goods and services.

Written by Sister Y

March 8, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Suicide as a Religious Act

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In her laudably dangerous article, “Religious Suicide in an Investor’s World,” Rita Polevoy dares to take suicide seriously. Suicide, says Polevoy, is often a religious act – a conscious act, in protest against the evils of the world, and in preservation of a different kind of dignity than J. David Velleman has in mind in his papers on suicide.

Polevoy, identified as “a student at Loyola University Chicago,” writes:

Suicide, as historian of religion David Chidester reminds us in Salvation and Suicide, his seminal study of the People’s Temple, is frequently a religious act, invested with religious motivations and following a religiously understood logic. The Jewish zealots at Masada, for instance, facing death (or, worse, torture, rape, forced conversion, and slavery) at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE took their own lives as a way of escaping with their religious identity and dignity intact. Likewise, when the utopian community at Jonestown drank poison in 1978, a ruling interpretation among those who participating willingly was that this act of suicide was in protest of “the conditions of an inhumane world.” Suicide presented a means of remaining fully human in the face of a society defined by race, class, and gender divisions and, thus, intent on dehumanization. [Emphasis and links mine.]

In response to the suicide of Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, we have seen the predictable, safe ruminations on selfishness and mental illness. And yet, with shocking boldness, de la Villehuchet’s brother, Bertrand, told the press that his brother’s suicide was an “act of honor.”

Advocates of suicide censorship abhor any consideration of the idea that suicide might sometimes be honorable or right. Douglas Faneuil, who claims to “work in the field of suicide prevention,” writes that “Praising a suicide as honorable may come with an extremely high price: namely, more suicides.” He encourages censorship (though you’re not supposed to call it censorship, he says, but rather “putting it in context”) of suicide coverage and justifies that by clinging to the idea of suicide contagion. (I have previously argued that there is clinical evidence that suicide contagion might not exist, and that even if it does, it does not justify censorship.)

But rather than failing to put suicide “in context,” Polevoy is merely describing a genuine aspect of many suicides, including de la Villehuchet’s. She writes,

Villehuchet’s suicide was a public act, an utterance aimed, surely, to resonate throughout the media and thus voice the outrage and despair of many anonymous investors, in the process focusing public attention on the very real ramifications of this white collar crime.

Not all suicides are idealistic, but certainly some are. Polevoy acknowledges a truth; to insist that all suicides are the product of mental illness, that there is never honor in suicide, is to sacrifice truth for the sake of political correctnessbullshit in the strict Frankfurt sense.

Update: An anonymous commenter points to a note by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of The Black Swan) on the suicide of his acquaintance, de la Villehuchet. Note 106, “On Killing Oneself,” reads in part:

This is an aristocratic act coming from an aristocratic character: you take your own life when you believe that you failed somewhere — and the solution is to inflict the ultimate penalty on yourself. It is not the money; but the embarrassment, the shame, the guilt that are hard to bear. Someone callous, indifferent to the harm done to others would have lived comfortably (“it is all about money”). A life of shame is not worth living. Christianity never allowed suicide; the stoics did –it allows a man to get the last word with fate.

Thierry, veuillez recevoir l’expression de mon respect le plus profond. [Emphasis in original.]

Written by Sister Y

January 16, 2009 at 9:13 pm

Attitudes Toward Suicide

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Note: If you are interested in evolutionary biology, please see my article on Thomas Joiner and the evolutionary psychology of suicide.

The question:

227. Do you think a person has the right to end his or her own life if this person: a. Has an incurable disease?

The General Social Survey, available through the Survey Documentation & Analysis project at the University of California, Berkeley, tracks how attitudes of Americans vary with time and against other variables. The answer to the question above, known as SUICIDE1, tracks attitudes toward a special kind of suicide right – that for the incurably ill. Answers vary strongly with age and over time.

The trend over time indicates that more people are favoring the right to suicide in the case of incurable illness. This chart indicates the percentage of people in the 50-60 age group responding to the above question – red for yes on suicide rights, blue for no on suicide rights – for the years 1972-2006, in five-year increments:

Attitudes within the 50 to 60 age range are clearly changing. Support for suicide rights climbs steeply until 1996, when it flattens out.

Similarly, attitudes toward suicide rights upon incurable illness vary with age; the chart below tracks answers to the above question by age group in ten-year increments, for the years 2002-2006.

Generally, the older the respondent, the less he favors suicide rights for the incurably ill, up until the 71-80 age range – the only age range in which a majority of respondents disfavor suicide rights. This is consistent either with (a) stable attitudes over the lifespan, set at an early age; or (b) changing attitudes over the lifespan toward disfavoring suicide rights – perhaps over concerns with one’s own mortality. However, the data above suggesting that attitudes are changing in favor of suicide rights, controlling for age, makes the first hypothesis more likely.

Interestingly, the direct correlation between age and negative attitudes toward suicide has an exception: the 81-90 age group. 81-90 year olds are more likely to favor suicide rights for the incurably ill than not, and they favor suicide rights more than the 71-80 age group. This may be suggestive of attitudes changing over the life span in response to events (in this case, advanced aging).

Sadly, there seems to be little to no progress in attitudes about suicide when someone is “tired of living.” Attitudes on the question known as SUICIDE4, as follows:

227. Do you think a person has the right to end his or her own life if this person: d. Is tired of living and ready to die?

show little change over time:

There is, unsurprisingly, a strong correlation in religion (THEISM) and attitudes toward suicide. The more one agrees with the question

1387. Do you agree or disagree with the following. . . a. There is a God who concerns Himself with every human being personally.

the more one disfavors suicide rights, both on incurable illness

and when one is tired of living:

What about education? Education is associated with favoring suicide rights. Here is the response to SUICIDE1 (suicide rights for people with incurable illnesses) against highest year of school completed:

The correlation for suicide rights for those tired of living is present but not as strong:

Interestingly, the correlation to college major (COLMAJR1) is the opposite of what I would have predicted: those with a major in fuzzy studies – English, literature, foreign language, fine arts, or other humanities (values 1-4) – were much more likely to favor suicide rights for the incurably ill than were those who majored in science or math (values 8-9):

Written by Sister Y

December 7, 2008 at 1:00 am