Bryan Caplan  

Hanson on Regulatory Bias

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Don't miss this great post by the great Robin Hanson.  The heart of it:
[R]egulations hold some things to higher standards than others, even when the relevant consequences seem similar. For example we seem to prefer:
  • Individuals over firms
  • Non-money over money exchange.
  • Natural over artificial chemicals
  • Old over new practices
  • Human over machine control
  • Locals over foreigners
  • Non- over for-profit organizations.
  • What else?
But isn't there a logical explanation?
[C]lever folks can think up justifications for such preferences. But... I expect few folks could quickly come up with those reasons, even though most embrace such preferences. This again suggests that the clever reasons some can offer are not the main reasons most folks support such biases. And the obvious reasons that might drive most folks to support such biases do not suggest these are biases worth keeping.
P.S. I don't think Robin had this in mind, but notice the tight overlap with anti-market bias, anti-foreign bias, and make-work bias.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
John writes:

So it looks like inferred incentives (pecuniary versus non-pecuniary) matter and closer relationship versus more distant relationship, something of a knowledge situation.

That suggests the regulations are an attempt at risk management.

david (not henderson) writes:

The preferences cited by Hanson strike me as falling under the general category of a bias in favour of the primitive or pre-civilizational - the same place that the collectivist bias, anti-market bias, anti-foreign bias, animism (aka environmentalism), etc., all come from.

Philo writes:

"This again suggests that the clever reasons some can offer are not the main reasons most folks support such biases." In other words, "the Heart hath its reasons, which the Reason knoweth not." We have been imbued by Natural Selection with impulses to behave in ways that contribute to our reproductive fitness. We naturally engage in many modes of behavior that can be rationalized--explicit reasons can be formulated for them--but for which the springs of our action lie deeper than explicit rational thought. And there are many borderline cases of action in which it is very difficult to say *just why* the agent is acting thus: often natural impulse and rational thought are both playing roles. (Indeed, rational thinking virtually always plays *some* role in our motivation, if only in that we could have suppressed our natural impulse *if we had seen a good reason to do so*.)

In short, *ex post* rationalizations of a common mode of behavior have more value than Robin Hanson allows them. They often help explain why Natural Selection has motivated this mode in us, and they often help explain why this mode continues to seem satisfactory to us (since we could suppress our natural motivation if that struck us as rationally required).

Lori writes:

Favoring individuals over firms is simply individualism. You're an individualist, aren't you? Or are you one of those "thin" individualists who defines "individual" as "private sector entity?" And if public policy does favor individuals over firms (and I seriously doubt that it does in these post Citizens United times) it's probably because contract feudalism very heavily favors firms over individuals. They say that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

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