Monday, May 09, 2005

Maybe This Idea Is...

Often when a public official starts proposing something new, the discourse immediately rearranges itself to accomodate the framework established by the person who thought it up. Not always, but often, especially certain types of ideas.

What I mean by this is that if I suggest that, say a National ID card is necessary to prevent terrorism, some people will agree, and other people will say no, it's too much encroachment on civil liberties or whatever philosophical objection they might have.

Which is all well and good, but when there is a new idea, more attention sometimes should be paid to a more fundamental question. Namely, "Hey! Maybe this idea is stupid."

I'm not sure if I agree with all of this or not, but I applaud this blogger and the essayists linked for going outside the "National ID Card Will Protect Us" vs. "It's Not Worth It" paradigm and examining the question of whether the whole idea might just be really stupid.

This ties into what I was hoping to make the subject of an article, but which didn't quite pan out. It's an idea from microeconomics that is so obvious that we often forget it, leading to absurd false dilemma fallacies and other fits of illogic.

The name of this principle is the Null Bundle. Most of the time in microeconomics, when a potential actor is faced with a set of choices, we assume that one of this actor's choices is the Null Bundle - he can do nothing.

Yet often, particularly in emotionally charged arenas like fighting terrorism, we explicitly take that option away from the public discourse. We say rhetorically, without analysis, that "we can't just do nothing."

But many years of economics experience teaches us that in fact, the Null Bundle must always be considered. Indeed, often in situations where it seems very unlikely that the Null Bundle would be desirable we find in the final analysis that it is the actor's most rational option.

Iraq is the most obvious example that springs to mind, but Afghanistan is just as good a fit. Almost everyone agreed after September 11th that "we can't just do nothing." However, it's not clear on its face what the consequences of doing nothing would have been. Presumably the results would have been different that the results of two failed wars, which have decimated our uniformed military and turned world public opinion against the United States to a degree that is unprecedented, literally, in all of history.

What would have been the result of "doing nothing?" The reactionary elements in our society (including, it should be noted, many powerful Democratic leaders) did an excellent job convincing us that the very question was irrational. Students of microeconomics know, however, that irrational decisions usually arise from a failure to consider all the available options.

Worth thinking about.

4 comments:

Herr Gokmop said...

Schneier makes some interesting points. One of the ones I'm most interested in is how it pushes certain behavior underground; notably if illegal aliens can't get legal driver's licenses, then they'll drive illegally.

It's always amusing to hear about the benefits of a particular piece of legislation from congressmen, because they always presuppose that the law they're creating will actually be followed. Real human behavior leads to other, typically unintended, consequences. I mean, cocaine is illegal right? Ergo, there must be no use or addiction to cocaine in all of the US, right? ... Right?

Adam P. Short said...

Actually there is an interesting point there, an important one that would be one of the key problems facing our society if it weren't for our maniacal foreign policy and insane fuel consumption.

What you're describing is known in economic circles as the "incentive to evade" problem. Basically, a rational person (in economic terms, that basically means a sociopath, but frighteningly enough, that definition yields pretty good predictions) will comply with a regulation only if the incentive to comply exceeds the incentive to evade.

I've run into this problem in my condo association. We don't have large trash pickup for the building because people feel, with some justification, that the entire association shouldn't have to pay for me to throw out my couch or whatever. So the policy is that if you want to throw out something large you have to set it up yourself and pay the fee.

Trouble is, we have a basement, so when someone wants to get rid of something big they just put it in the basement. No one knows whose it is so once it's down there it's the association's problem.

The rational response to this is just to accept that there's not really any reasonable way for us to avoid having large trash pickup paid for by the Association.

The prohibitionist's response would be to install videocameras and hire a security firm to guard the basement. This would prevent the association from having to pay for large trash pickup, but it would also cost about fifty times what it would cost to just have large trash pickup.

In reality, on the federal scale the prohibitionist's response is even stupider, since despite spending massively more money fighting cocaine than rampant cocaine use could possibly cost society, the programs put into effect don't even seem to put any serious downward pressure on cocaine use.

So, back to our large trash analogy, the real equivalent would be if we decided that in response to our basement security problem, we hired a ninja with a helicopter and a sniper rifle and posted him on the roof.

Lord Lessismore said...

I think your insights on the Null Bundle are, as per usual, very perceptive. But the beginning of your post led me to reflect on an issue that's been coming up a lot these days for me, and that's the importance of defining the scope of a problem or situation. In my opinion, this is something the Democrats are distinctly bad at and that conservative Republicans, in particular, have somehow become exceptionally good at. Perhaps it is the experience of being able to turn every issue into a terrorism issue over the past couple of years that they have learned from.

The issues involving "moral values," or even more distinctly, "Christian values" are where this seems most blatantly manipulative to me. Sometimes things like the war in Iraq and the death penalty have somehow been turned into "moral issues." A book I'm struggling to get through (God's Politics) mentioned more than a couple times how the New Testament mentions serving God through alleviating poverty and helping the poor more times than any other action. Where doesn't the moral majority seem to give a rat's ass about that issue, when Jesus apparently cared about it most of all?

There's more I want to say about this (and want to go back and say what I just said better) but, as usual, I've run out of blog time. Oh well. Just trust me: I had all sorts of profound things to say about this...

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