People occasionally accuse my colleague Robin Hanson of extreme dogmatism. But they don't know him like I do. When I first met Robin Hanson, he earnestly believed that voters were rational and selfish. He rejected any model that violated these assumptions as fatally flawed. And he was already almost forty years old. To argue with a person who fits this description is usually fruitless.
I often post on why we make some behaviors illegal, while leaving
similar behaviors legal. For example, yesterday I posted on why low
status jobs get work hour limits, and high status jobs don't. When I
post on such topics, many commenters suggest that the explanation is it
is harder to enforce laws against the now-legal behaviors.
When I first met Robin, he would have been sympathetic to this argument. But he's learned a lot in the meanwhile:
So I thought it might be worth pointing out how little of our legal variance is explained by difficulty of enforcement.
First, note that we now tolerate huge variations in the ease of
catching law violators, without exempting hard-to-catch cases. For
example, sales tax must be paid not only when using a credit cared at a
chain store, but also for cash purchases at flea markets. Income tax
must be paid not only for full-time employees of big firms, but also
when paying cash to a transient to do some yard work. It is just as
illegal to shoplift a dress from Macy's as it is to nap a trinket from
some's house you visit. Putting trash in the wrong recycling bin is
against the rules even when there's almost no chance of catching
you. Rape can be quite hard to prove, yet few are sympathetic to
legalizing rape in the situations where rapists are hardest to catch.
Oh, and by the way:
Second, note that it usually makes more sense to adapt to
hard-to-catch cases by increasing punishments, rather than exempting
them from punishment. They hung horse thieves in the old wild west not
because horses were more valuable than other items whose theft didn't
induce a death penalty, but because it was much harder to catch horse
thieves. [emphasis mine]
For example, if we wanted we could limit the number of hours per
week that students study for classes. Yes, that rule might be hard to
enforce without other supporting changes. But we could require that
studying only be done in approved study halls. Or we could increase the
punishment for violations. Or we could just accept that the law would
be evaded often. But it seems to me far more likely that we don't
actually want to limit student hours per week of study.
Robin and I continue to have many disagreements (see here and here for starters). But I never tire of arguing with him. There really always is a chance I'll change his mind. And of course he's often changed mine - it's thanks to Robin that I'm a betting man and a medical skeptic.