Bryan Caplan  

The Mind of Robin Hanson: The Inside Story

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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. 

But not in Robin's case.  Over the last twelve years, I've managed to almost completely change his mind about voters.  Robin now refutes the kind of views he used to hold with great insight and brilliance.  His latest post on "hard-to-enforce" laws and legal double standards is another fine example:
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]

What really explains legal double standards?  The fact that voters want legal double standards:

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.
P.S. Now let us all use social pressure to induce Robin to write his first book.

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Ari T writes:

Yes, we want a book! Robin's insights deserve more popularity.

I think Robin always makes a persuasive case to not have too much confidence. In a way, when Bryan critcizes Robin, he sounds very plausible. But it also works both ways, when Robin criticizes Bryan it sounds plausible too. In fact, I think he is one of the smartest critics of libertarianism. In way Robin's meta-level analysis of beliefs and their formation gives a lot of edge over academic libertarians like Bryan. I see Robin more of moderate person who is ready to change views if evidence is not on his side.

I don't see why he would earn label dogmatic though. Wouldn't that fit more the person with strong libertarian beliefs? In sense, even when Robin has strange beliefs, I think Robin has less of romance with any of them. How much of a status damage would it be to reverse some of Bryan's core beliefs of moral philosophy or beliefs of efficient ways to solve coordination problems? I think you'd be hard-pressed to support say "socialized medicine". The talk session about efficiency vs liberty seemed to reveal a lot of this disagreement. I also remember reading or hearing Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson disagree with you often. I wonder why such would happen. :)

I think academic betting is more status signalling than finding the absolute truth. Yes, I think it is very good and useful phenomenon but given opportunity cost (stock market etc.) the incentives to gamble big sums are not there. How much have you lost betting? Compares this to poker players or achieved stock brokers. Of course the betting market is very illiquid. But on margin the change from no-betting to betting is major benefit, and should be encouraged.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

I have increased my degree of belief that Robin Hanson will publish a book before 2015, but I still don't thinks its very likely. If you disagree with my assessment, then you can go on record here.

Jeff writes:


If you're reading this, I'd read any book written by you regardless of the title (or cover)!

fundamentalist writes:

Incremental pragmatism is the reason for double standards. No department of consistency exists to study laws and remove double standards or conflicting laws. People make laws in response to specific issues at specific times and ignore the larger philosophical issues. Most people just don't have the time or interest. They have more important things to do.

Someone wrote that one of the major contributors to the latest financial crisis was a mass of conflicting regulations from different departments. Incremental pragmatism, which Americans hold in very high esteem, "fixed" thousands of specific problems with no consideration of the long term or conflicts with other regulations.

Taking the long view and the broader effects of legislation requires a philosophy of law, but Americans distrust philosophers and consider them ideologues. They prefer the pragmatic quick fixer, the engineer.

vidyohs writes:

"I've managed to almost completely change his mind about voters."

I'll go with the great sales trainer Zig Ziglar, we never change a person's mind, all we can do is keep giving them new information until they change their own mind.

Also, I doubt that the severe punishment of hanging horse thieves was mostly because horse thieves were hard to catch.

I think the example of hanging horse thieves fails for the following reasons. During the eras of the horse as transportation and as labor, horses were extremely valuable relative to most other possessions a man might have. They could also be difficult to protect from theft, particularly in the rural areas where a man might own and need numerous horses. Large numbers of horses need lots of grazing area and were unlikely to be brought into a guarded corral at nights.

One might also remember that in the times when, and places where, a horse thief was hanged, punishment for most any kind of crime, including burglary, was also punishable by death. Times were tough and justice was too. The conclusion that punishments reflect the desires of the people fits this understanding quite well.

There is one example of total in your face refuting of that conclusion, where the people (now most are aware) would like to see punishments equal for all offenders; and, that of course is the new public knowledge of Congressional Insider Trading. Private citizens go to jail for that, so why shouldn't congresscritters?

The difference is that insider trading is illegal for private citizens, but is quite legal for congresscritters. Not only for the congresscritter him/her self, but they can share, with absolute impunity, the insider information with family and friends who are also protected from legal charges. Regardless of what the public wants regarding this, don't hold your breath waiting for it to change.

Drat, I wanted to provide the links to Congressional Insider Trading but my server is having problems and I can't get to my site. Just google Congressional Insider Trading and read the first three or four links that come up.

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