Bryan Caplan  

Prove-Me-Wrong Prizes

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Hard-line libertarians generally oppose libel and slander law: Free speech includes the freedom to speak damaging falsehoods - including damaging falsehoods about specific people.  Whether or not you agree, here's a magic bullet to privately defuse libel and slander: The Prove-Me-Wrong Prize.

The idea is simple.  Suppose I claim "Joe Blow cheats on his wife, and I won't pay you a penny if I'm proven wrong."  If you have an ounce of common sense, you'll dismiss my lame accusation.  If however I announce, "Joe Blow cheats on his wife, and if I'm proven wrong according to well-known Arbitrator X, I will pay you $10,000."  Now you have a good reason to take me seriously, right?

The main problem with our current libel/slander regime: Pronouncing the solitary sentence, "Joe Blow cheats on his wife," is functionally equivalent to "Joe Blow cheats on his wife, and I won't pay you a penny if I'm proven wrong."  But most people don't treat them as functionally equivalent!  

Why don't they?  Many reasons, but perhaps the most important is that we're not used to Prove-Me-Wrong prizes.  If such prizes were common, you'd practically have to offer such prizes to be taken seriously when talking smack.  In such a society, vicious lies would primarily discredit the speaker rather than his target. 

So why not?

COMMENTS (16 to date)
Lawrence D'Anna writes:

It won't work. Malicious lies are consumed eagerly by audiences in order to signal affiliations and pro-social attitudes. They are indifferent to the truth or falsity of these claims anyway so they won't bother attending to schemes like this one that would let them weigh truth better.

Rick Hull writes:

Generally, someone "talking smack" wants the message to reach the widest possible audience. To whom would a fixed payment be distributed if proven wrong?

Jon Murphy writes:

I don't understand. How is that different from slander and libel law? I say something bad and incorrect, you sue me, and I have to pay you.

Greg G writes:

Won't work. You can't "prove" the absence of a behavior on Joe Blow's part. All you can do is show it hasn't happened when you were looking.

And who are these well know arbitrators? I can't think of any well known arbitrators. Any arbitrator deciding a controversial issue would quickly become controversial himself. In any event, arbitrators provide decisions, not proofs.

James Randi has, for a long time, formally offered a million dollar prize to anyone who can pass a well defined test showing they have powers of ESP. Many have tried and failed the test but it's not obvious it has changed any minds or behaviors.

Handle writes:

That's the regime we already have when defamation is an actionable tort. The implicit 'prove me wrong' prize is just set at the amount of damages. And why should the prize be any less than the harm done, or the harmed party not restored to their prior position?

Gene Callahan writes:

"Hard-line libertarians generally oppose libel and slander law: "

One more reason we can ignore them!

Seth Green writes:

I think the problem is the difficulty of disproving a negative. "Larry has cheated on his wife in the past" or "Larry is the kind of guy who would cheat on his wife if given the chance." Neither statement is falsifiable (without perfect monitoring!) and both are libelous.

Robert Evans writes:

It won't work (well) for two reasons:

1) $XXXX prizes will be seen as an absolute value of sincerity instead of a proportionate value. A poor person saying "prove me wrong and you'll get $100" (my entire bankroll) will be seen as less sincere than "prove me wrong and you'll get $100M" from a Tim Cook, or possibly even a Trump.

2) Darn it. My second point was the better point but I forgot it while typing up the first point. :(

baconbacon writes:

@ Seth Green and others-

Perfect not being able to prove a negative is irrelevant. When you are talking arbitrators its not up to the person making the statement to set the terms for "truth/disproven".

baconbacon writes:

@ Robert Evans

Does it matter? People who interact with billionaires don't tend to interact with hundred dollar airs.

ThaomasH writes:

But a slander judgement is contingent "prove me wrong prize. Damages are the prize. I guess you are suggesting that this process be privatized and not rely on courts.

jj writes:

1. Un-prized claims are not automatically lame. Even without cash prizes, there's a reputational cost to making slanderous statements and a reward (reputational repair?) to disproving them.

The amount of reputational prize can be set by making a strong or weak claim. The reputational reward can be varied by thoroughly disproving the claim, or just casting doubt on it.

2. Transaction costs for cash prizes feel like they'd be at least in the $1000's of dollars.

Daublin writes:

The kicker is the "arbitrator" part. How do you find one that you could both agree on, for any domain where there's not already such an obvious measure of truth that you don't even need an arbitrator at all?

Robert Evans writes:


Unless they're amateur journalists, whistle-blowing employees or their friends and families (including domestic help), service folk of other stripes.

A Country Farmer writes:

Shouldn't it be something like: I have evidence that Joe cheats on his wife and I'll pay $10K if a neutral arbitrator thinks the evidence wrong. Otherwise, how can someone prove that you're wrong in your claim if they can't contradict evidence?

Steve S writes:

I think too many people are focusing on the prize aspect and not this most important quote from Bryan's post:

"Joe Blow cheats on his wife," is functionally equivalent to "Joe Blow cheats on his wife, and I won't pay you a penny if I'm proven wrong." But most people don't treat them as functionally equivalent!"

When people make slanderous claims, we should rarely take them seriously enough to the point that the unfounded claim would negatively impact the slandered party in a financially measurable way.

Easier said than done, yeah, because people are mostly terrible, but that doesn't diminish the point.

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