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    Robin Hanson recently proposed stores where banned products could be sold.  There are a number of excellent arguments for such a policy—an inherent right of individual liberty, the career incentive of bureaucrats to prohibit everything, legislators being just as biased as individuals.  But even so (I replied), some poor, honest, not overwhelmingly educated mother of 5 children is going to go into these stores and buy a "Dr. Snakeoil's Sulfuric Acid Drink" for her arthritis and die, leaving her orphans to weep on national television.

    I was just making a simple factual observation.  Why did some people think it was an argument in favor of regulation?

    On questions of simple fact (for example, whether Earthly life arose by natural selection) there's a legitimate expectation that the argument should be a one-sided battle; the facts themselves are either one way or another, and the so-called "balance of evidence" should reflect this.  Indeed, under the Bayesian definition of evidence, "strong evidence" is just that sort of evidence which we only expect to find on one side of an argument.

    But there is no reason for complex actions with many consequences to exhibit this onesidedness property.  Why do people seem to want their policy debates to be one-sided?

    Politics is the mind-killer.  Arguments are soldiers.  Once you know which side you're on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it's like stabbing your soldiers in the back.  If you abide within that pattern, policy debates will also appear one-sided to you—the costs and drawbacks of your favored policy are enemy soldiers, to be attacked by any means necessary.

    One should also be aware of a related failure pattern, thinking that the course of Deep Wisdom is to compromise with perfect evenness between whichever two policy positions receive the most airtime.  A policy may legitimately have lopsided costs or benefits.  If policy questions were not tilted one way or the other, we would be unable to make decisions about them.  But there is also a human tendency to deny all costs of a favored policy, or deny all benefits of a disfavored policy; and people will therefore tend to think policy tradeoffs are tilted much further than they actually are.

    If you allow shops that sell otherwise banned products, some poor, honest, poorly educated mother of 5 kids is going to buy something that kills her.  This is a prediction about a factual consequence, and as a factual question it appears rather straightforward—a sane person should readily confess this to be true regardless of which stance they take on the policy issue.  You may also think that making things illegal just makes them more expensive, that regulators will abuse their power, or that her individual freedom trumps your desire to meddle with her life.  But, as a matter of simple fact, she's still going to die.

    We live in an unfair universe.  Like all primates, humans have strong negative reactions to perceived unfairness; thus we find this fact stressful.  There are two popular methods of dealing with the resulting cognitive dissonance.  First, one may change one's view of the facts—deny that the unfair events took place, or edit the history to make it appear fair.  Second, one may change one's morality—deny that the events are unfair.

    Some libertarians might say that if you go into a "banned products shop", passing clear warning labels that say "THINGS IN THIS STORE MAY KILL YOU", and buy something that kills you, then it's your own fault and you deserve it.  If that were a moral truth, there would be no downside to having shops that sell banned products.  It wouldn't just be a net benefit, it would be a one-sided tradeoff with no drawbacks.

    Others argue that regulators can be trained to choose rationally and in harmony with consumer interests; if those were the facts of the matter then (in their moral view) there would be no downside to regulation.

    Like it or not, there's a birth lottery for intelligence—though this is one of the cases where the universe's unfairness is so extreme that many people choose to deny the facts.  The experimental evidence for a purely genetic component of 0.6-0.8 is overwhelming, but even if this were to be denied, you don't choose your parental upbringing or your early schools either.

    I was raised to believe that denying reality is a moral wrong.  If I were to engage in wishful optimism about how Sulfuric Acid Drink was likely to benefit me, I would be doing something that I was warned against and raised to regard as unacceptable.  Some people are born into environments—we won't discuss their genes, because that part is too unfair—where the local witch doctor tells them that it is right to have faith and wrong to be skeptical.  In all goodwill, they follow this advice and die.  Unlike you, they weren't raised to believe that people are responsible for their individual choices to follow society's lead.  Do you really think you're so smart that you would have been a proper scientific skeptic even if you'd been born in 500 C.E.?  Yes, there is a birth lottery, no matter what you believe about genes.

    Saying "People who buy dangerous products deserve to get hurt!" is not tough-minded.  It is a way of refusing to live in an unfair universe.  Real tough-mindedness is saying, "Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of 5 children didn't deserve it, but we're going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation."  Can you imagine a politician saying that?  Neither can I.  But insofar as economists have the power to influence policy, it might help if they could think it privately—maybe even say it in journal articles, suitably dressed up in polysyllabismic obfuscationalization so the media can't quote it.

    I don't think that when someone makes a stupid choice and dies, this is a cause for celebration.  I count it as a tragedy.  It is not always helping people, to save them from the consequences of their own actions; but I draw a moral line at capital punishment.  If you're dead, you can't learn from your mistakes.

    Unfortunately the universe doesn't agree with me.  We'll see which one of us is still standing when this is over.

    ADDED:  Two primary drivers of policy-one-sidedness are the affect heuristic and the just-world fallacy.

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    Like much of Eliezer's writings, this is dense and full of interesting ideas, so I'll just focus on one aspect. I agree that people advocating positions should fully recognize even (or especially) facts that are detrimental to their side. People advocating deregulation need to accept that things exactly like Eliezer describes will happen.

    I'm not 100% sure that in a public forum where policy is being debated, that people should feel obligated to advance arguments that work to their side's detriment. It depends on what the ground rules are (possibly implicit ones). If everyone is making a good faith attempt to provide this kind of balance in their statements, it could work well in theory. But if one side does this and the other does not, it will lead to an unbalanced presentation of the issues. Since in practice it seems that most people aren't so even-handed in their arguments, that would explain why when someone does point out a fact that benefits one side, the audience will assume he favors that side, as happened to Eliezer.

    Reading the above, I get the impression that Eliezer does in fact favor regulation in this context, and if so, then the audience conclusion was correct. He was... (read more)

    Hal, I don't favor regulation in this context - nor would I say that I really oppose it. I started my career as a libertarian, and gradually became less political as I realized that (a) my opinions would end up making no difference to policy and (b) I had other fish to fry. My current concern is simply with the rationality of the disputants, not with their issues - I think I have something new to say about rationality.

    I do believe that people with IQ 120+ tend to forget about their conjugates with IQ 80- when it comes to estimating the real-world effects of policy - either by pretending they won't get hurt, or by pretending that they deserve it. But so long as their consequential predictions seem reasonable, and so long as I don't think they're changing their morality to try to pretend the universe is fair, I won't argue with them whether they support or oppose regulation.

    I think you may be conflating 2 common meanings of the word "deserve" which may be magnifying some of the conflict over your statement. deserve [moral], ie that someone deserves it like someone might deserve prison for a terrible crime and deserve as in [events that happen to them as a result of their own actions] which need not have any moral elements. Someone who goes walking into the Sahara without water, shelter or navigation equipment has done no moral wrong. They don't deserve [moral] bad things to happen to them but bad things may happen to them as a result of their unwise choices and may be entirely their own doing. In that sense they get what they have earned or "deserve" [non-moral, as in "have a claim to" or outcome they have brought about]. It's not something malicious that's been forced upon them by others. Someone who steps in a hidden bear trap has been unfairly maimed by a cruel uncaring universe and does not deserve [moral] or deserve[reaping earned results of their own actions] it. Someone who, against the advice of others, ignoring all safety warnings, against even their own better judgement uses a clearly marked bear trap as a sex toy has done no moral wrong. They don't deserve[moral] bad things to happen to them but bad things may happen to them as a result of their unwise choices.

    Nobody chooses their genes or their early environment. The choices they make are determined by those things (and some quantum coin flips). Given what we know of neuroscience how can anyone deserve anything?

    "Nobody chooses their genes or their early environment. The choices they make are determined by those things (and some quantum coin flips)."

    All true so far... but here comes the huge logical leap...

    "Given what we know of neuroscience how can anyone deserve anything?"

    What does neuroscience showing the cause of why bad people choose to do bad things, have to do with whether or not bad people deserve bad things to happen to them?

    The idea that bad people who choose to do bad things to others deserve bad things to happen to them has never been based on an incorrect view of neuroscience, and neuroscience doesn't change that even slightly.

    The point TGGP3 is making is that they didn't choose to do bad things, and so are not bad people - they're exactly like you would be if you had lived their lives. Always remember that you are not special - nobody is perfectly rational, and nobody is the main character in a story. To quote Eliezer, "You grew up in a post-World-War-Two society where 'I vas only followink orders' is something everyone knows the bad guys said. In the fifteenth century they would've called it honourable fealty." Remember that some Nazis committed atrocities, but some Nazis were ten years old in 1945. It is very difficult to be a "good person" (by your standards) when you have a completely different idea of what being good is. You are displaying a version of the fundamental attribution error - that is, you don't think of other people as being just like you and doing things for reasons you don't know about, so you can use the words "bad person" comfortably. The idea "bad people deserve bad things to happen to them" is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that there is such a thing as a bad person, which is unproven at best - even the existence of free will is debatable. There are people who consider themselves to be bad people, but they tend to be either mentally ill or people who have not yet resolved the conflict between "I have done X" and "I think that it is wrong to do X" - that is, they have not adjusted to having become new people with different morals since they did X (which is what criminal-justice systems are meant to achieve).
    I can only interpret a statement like this as "they are exactly like you would be if you were exactly like them", which is of course a tautology. If you first accept a definition of what is good and what is bad, then certainly there are bad people. A bad person is someone who does bad things. This is still relative to some morality, presumably that of the speaker.
    If doing "bad" things (choose your own definition) makes you a Bad Person, then everyone who has ever acted immorally is a Bad Person. Personally, I have done quite a lot of immoral things (by my own standards), as has everyone else ever. Does this make me a Bad Person? I hope not. You are making precisely the mistake that the Politics is the Mind-Killer sequence warns against - you are seeing actions you disagree with and deciding that the actors are inherently wicked. This is a combination of correspondence bias, or the fundamental attribution error, (explaining actions in terms of enduring traits, rather than situations) and assuming that any reasonable person would agree to whatever moral standard you pick. A person is moral if they desire to follow a moral standard, irrespective of whether anyone else agrees with that standard.
    If a broken machine is a machine that doesn't work, does that mean that all machines are broken, because there was a time for each machine when it did not work? More clearly: reading "someone who does bad things" as "someone who has ever done a bad thing" requires additional assumptions.
    They can't. The whole idea of "deserving" is... icky. I try not to use it in figuring out my own morals, although I do sometimes use the word "deserve" in casual speech/thought. When I'm trying to be more conscientious and less casual, I don't use it.
    This article might answer that questionDiseased thinking: dissolving questions about disease

    TGGP, I think we have to define "deserve" relative to social consensus--a person deserves something if we aren't outraged when they get it for one reason or another. (Most people define this based on the consensus of a subset of society--people who share certain values, for instance.) Differences in the concept of "deserve" are one of the fundamental differences (if not the primary difference) between conservatism and liberalism.

    Do we need a definition of "deserve"? Perhaps it does not correspond to anything in reality. I would certainly argue that it doesn't correspond to anything in politics. For instance, should we have a council that doles out things people deserve? It just seems silly. Politics is ideally a giant cost/benefit satisficing operation. Practically, it is an agglomeration of power plays. I don't see where "deserve" fits in.
    A "council that doles out things people deserve" sounds like Parecon: Life After Capitalism by Michael Albert. (Personally, it fills me with horror, but there are people who think it's a good idea.)

    TGGP, if the mind were not embodied in the brain, it would be embodied in something else. You don't need neuroscience to see the problem with the naive conception of free will.

    The reason I don't think idiots deserve to die is not because their genes played a role in making them idiots. Suppose it were not the genes. So what? The point is that being stupid is not the same as being malicious, or dishonest. It is simply being stupid, no more and no less. Drinking Sulfuric Acid Drink because you wishfully think it will cure your arthritis, is simply not on a moral par with deliberately burning out someone's eyes with hot pokers. No matter what you believe about the moral implications of determinism for sadistic torturers, in no fair universe would mere sloppy thinking be a capital crime. As it has always been, in this our real world.

    What about when sloppy thinking leads a person to hurt other people, i.e. a driver who accidentally kills a pedestrian while distracted by a call they thoughtlessly answered in motion?

    I am not normally a nit pick (well, maybe I am) but this jumped out at me: an example of a fact--"whether Earthly life arose by natural selection." Because natural seletion is one of the cornerstones of modern biology, I thought I'd take a few seconds to enter this comment.

    Natural selection is a biological process by which favorable traits that can be gentically inherited become more common in successive generations of a population of reproducing organisms, and unfavorable traits that can be inherited become less common. The driving force is the... (read more)

    "whether Earthly life arose by natural selection" was a bad example of Eliezer's. Natural selection does not account for how life arose, and dubitably accounts for how even the diversity of life arose*. Natural selection accounts, and only accounts, for how specified (esp. complex & specified) biological artifacts arose and are maintained. An infinitely better example would have been "whether terrestrial life shares a common ancestor," because that is a demonstrable fact. *This has probably mostly to do with plate tectonics carting around life forms from place to place and with genetic drift.

    Sorry, Brayton. I do know better, it was simply an accident of phrasing. I hadn't meant to imply that abiogenesis itself occurred by selective processes - "arose" was meant to refer to life's ascent rather than sparking.

    Though, in my opinion, the very first replicator (or chemical catalytic hypercycle) should not really count as "life", because it merely happens to have the accidental property of self-replication and was not selectively optimized to this function. Thus, it properly belongs to the regime of accidental events rather than the regime of (natural) optimization.

    The problem here is bias to one's own biases, I think. After all, we're all stupid some of the time, and realising this is surely a core component of the Overcoming Bias project. Robin Hanson may not think he'd ever be stupid enough to walk into the Banned Shop, but we all tend to assume we're the rational one.

    You also need to consider the real-world conditions of your policy. Yes, this might be a good idea in its Platonic ideal form, but in practice, that actually doesn't tell us very much. As an argument against "regulation", I think, with a co... (read more)

    I, for one, imagine that I could easily walk into the Banned Shop, given the right circumstances. All it takes is one slip up - fatigue, drunkness, or woozy medication would be sufficient - to lead to permanent death. With that in mind, I don't think we should be planting more minefields than this reality currently has, on purpose. I like the idea of making things idiot-proof, not because I think idiots are the best thing ever, but because we're all idiots at least some of the time.
    Certain types of content labeling might work a lot like Hanson's Banned Shop, minus the trivial inconvenience of going to a different shop: the more obvious and dire the label, the closer the approximation. Cigarettes are probably the most advanced example I can think of. Now, cigarettes have also been extensively regulated in other ways, so we can't infer from this too well, but I think we can tentatively describe the results as mixed: it's widely understood that cigarettes stand a good chance of killing you, and smoking rates have indeed gone down since labeling laws went into effect, but it's still common. Whether or not we count this as a win probably depends on whether, and how much, we believe smokers' reasons for smoking -- or dismiss them as the dribble of a hijacked habit-formation system.

    Alex raises an interesting point: do most of us in fact assume that we would never walk into a Banned Shop? I don't necessarily assume that. I could envision going there for a medical drug which was widely available in Europe, but not yet approved by the U.S. FDA, for example. Or how about drugs that are supposed to only be available by prescription, might Banned Shops provide them to anyone who will pay? I might well choose to skip the time and money of a doctor visit to get a drug I've taken before without problems (accepting the risk that unknown to me, some subtle medical condition has arisen that now makes the drug unsafe, and a doctor would have caught it). Or for that matter, what about recreational drugs? If Banned Shops sold marijuana to anyone with a 100 IQ, I'm sure there are many list members who would partake.

    It's a similar argument to my proposal of Rational Airways, an airline that asks you to sign a release when buying a ticket to the effect that you realise how tiny the risk of a terrorist attack is, and therefore are willing to travel with Rational, who do not apply any annoying security procedures.

    (Responding to old post) This has another problem that other people haven't mentioned so far: it's not really possible to trace a terrorist attack to a specific cause such as lack of a particular security procedure. This means that Rational Airways will cut out their annoying security procedures, but the release they will make you sign will release them from liability to all terrorist attacks, not just to terrorist attacks related to them cutting down those security procedures. That's a bad deal for the consumer--the consumer wants to avoid intrusive searches, finds an airline which lets them avoid the searches by signing a release, but the release also lets the airline hire known serial killers as stewardesses as well as not search the passengers, and you can't sue them for it because the release is all-encompassing and is not just limited to terrorism that would have been caught by searches. Furthermore, then all the other airlines see how Rational Airlines works and decide to improve on it. They get together and decide that all passengers will have to either submit to being stripped fully naked, or sign a release absolving the airline of responsibility for terrorists. The passengers, of course, sign the releases, and the result is that the airlines never have to worry about hiring serial killers or any other forms of negligence either. (Because not screening the stewardesses for serial killers saves them money, any airline that decides not to do this cannot compete on price.) Later, some smart airlines decide they don't actually need the excuse and just say "there's an unavoidable base rate of terrorism and we don't want to get sued for that" and make everyone, period, sign a release acknowledging that before getting on the plane (and therefore absolving the airline of all responsibility for terrorism whether it is part of the base rate or not.) Even later, another airline decides to just make its customers promise not to sue them for anything at all (whether
    In fact, let me add a comment to this. Someone may be willing to assume some risk but not a higher level of risk. But there's no way to say "I'm willing to accept an 0.5% chance of something bad but not a 5% chance" by signing a disclaimer--the effect of the disclaimer is that when something bad happens, you can't sue, which is an all or nothing thing. And a disaster that results from an 0.5% chance looks pretty much like a disaster that results from a 5% chance, so you can't disclaim only one such type of disaster.

    Alex, a possible problem is that Rational would then attract all the terrorists who would otherwise have attacked different airlines.

    PS: And, the risk might not be tiny if you took off all the safety precautions. But, yes, you could dispense with quite a few costly pointless ostentatious displays of effort, without changing the security risk in any significant sense.

    James, my comment on drawing the moral line at capital punishment was addressed to the universe in general. Judicial executions count for a very small proportion of all death penalties - for example, the death penalty that you get for just being alive for longer than a century or so.

    "...the death penalty that you get for just being alive for longer than a century or so." The "ethics of gods" most probably is the ethics of evolution. "Good" (in this particular sence) Universe have to be "bad" enough to allow the evolution of live, mind and [probabbly] technology. The shaw is natural selection - and the shaw must go on. Even as it includes aforementioned death penalty...

    The experimental evidence for a purely genetic component of 0.6-0.8 is overwhelming

    Erm. 0.6-0.8 what?


    Probably 60-80% heredity. But that is also meaningless, because I have no idea which population it refers to.
    I assume he means an R or an R^2 of 0.6-0.8. Both are measures of correlation. R^2 would be the percent in the variation of one twins intelligence predicted by the intelligence of the other twin.

    I realize it has little to do with the main argument of the post, but I also have issues with Eliezer's claim:

    "The experimental evidence for a purely genetic component of 0.6-0.8 is overwhelming..."

    Genes matter a lot. But there are a number of problems with the calculation you allude to. See Richard Nisbett's work.

    what is the calculation he was alluding to? i wanted a source on that.

    "Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of 5 children didn't deserve it, but we're going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation." Can you imagine a politician saying that? Neither can I.

    --60 Minutes (5/12/96) Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

    Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it.

    She later expressed regret for it, after taking an awful lot of flack at the time, but this does sometimes happen.


    I think your point that she took a lot of flak for it is evidence for the original point. The only other reasonable responses to that could have been changing her mind on the spot, or disputing the data, and neither of those responses would have brought similar backlash on her. Conceding weak points to your arguments in politics is often looked upon as a weakness when it shouldn't be.

    its unfair to caricaturize libertarians as ultra-social-darwinists saying "stupid ppl who accidently kill themselves DESERVED it". if that quote was ever literally uttered, I would tend to think it was out of exasperation at the opposing viewpoint that govt has a paramount responsibility to save its citizens from themselves to the point of ludicrous pandering.

    "Everyone gets what they deserve" is the unironic (and secular) motto of a close family friend who is wealthy in Brazil, one of the countries with the greatest levels of economic inequality in the world. I have heard the sentiment echoed widely among the upper and upper middle class. Maybe it's not as extreme as that, but it is a clear expression of the idea that unfortunate people deserve their misfortune to the point that those who have the resources to help them should not bother. This sentiment also characterizes Objectivism, which is commonly (though not always) associated with libertarianism.

    Sounds like our good friend the just-world fallacy.
    You misunderstand Rand's Objectivism. It's not that people who bad-luck into a bad situation deserve that situation. Nor do people who good-luck into a good situation deserve that reward. You only deserve what you work for. That is Objectivism, in a nutshell. If I make myself a useful person, I don't owe my usefulness to anyone, no matter how desperate their need. That may look like you're saying the desperate deserve their circumstances, but that is just the sort of fallacy Eliezer was writing about in the OP. Where libertarian political theory relates to Objectivism is in the way the government often oversteps its bounds in expecting successful people to do extra work to help others out. Many libertarians are quite charitable--they just don't want the government forcing them to be so.
    You only deserve what you work for - do you get what you deserve? If you don't, then what purpose does the word "deserve" serve? If you do get what you deserve, how come the world looks like it's full of people work for something, deserve it, and don't get it?
    I'm only trying to correct the comment's incorrect assertions about objectivism and libertarianism. To address your comment, I'll start by pointing out Objectivism is a system of ethics, a set of rules for deciding how to treat other people and their stuff. It's not a religion, so it can't answer questions like "Why do some people who work hard and live right have bad luck?" So, I will assume you are saying that people who work hard in our society seem to you to systematically fail to get what they work for. To clarify my comment, objectivism says you only deserve to get what you work for from other people. That is, you don't in any way deserve to receive from others what they didn't already agree to pay you in exchange for your work. But, some people can't find anyone to pay them to work. Some can't work at all. Some can sell their work, but can't get enough to make a living. Because of the size and complexity of our society, there are huge numbers of people who have these problems. Sometimes it's their fault--maybe they goofed off in high school or college--but often it's not. If we were cavemen, we'd kick them out of the cave and let them starve, but we're not. We have multiple safety mechanisms, also because of the size and complexity of our society, through neighbors, schools, churches, and local, state and national governments, that help most people through hard times. The fact that I'm OK with governments being in that sentence is a major reason I can't call myself a strict Objectivist, but I'm still more a libertarian than anything else, politically. I think the ideal is that no one should fall through our safety nets, but there will always be people who do, just like the mother of five in the OP. And when everyone is having a harder time than usual, more people will fall through the safety nets. And if your problem is with whole nations of people who seem to work hard for very little, well, I probably agree with you, and our beef is with the history of
    "To clarify my comment, objectivism says you only deserve to get what you work for from other people. That is, you don't in any way deserve to receive from others what they didn't already agree to pay you in exchange for your work." Although it might work as a system of ethics (or not, depending on your ethics), this definitely doesn't function as a system of economics. First of all, it makes the question of wealth creation a chicken-and-egg problem: If every individual A only deserves to receive what individual B agrees to pay them for work X, how did individual B obtain the wealth to pay A in the first place? The answer is probably that you can also work for yourself, creating wealth that did not exist without anyone paying you. So your equation, as you've expressed it, does not quite balance. You're missing a term. Wealth creation is very much a physical thing, which makes it hard to tie to an abstract system of ethics. The wealth created by work X is the value of X; whether it's the food grown from the earth, or the watch that has been assembled from precisely cut steel, glass, and silicon. That is the wealth that is added to the pool by labour and ingenuity, regardless of how it gets distributed or who deserves to get paid for it. And that wealth remains in the system, until the watch breaks or the food spoils (or gets eaten; it's harder to calculate the value of consumed food). It might lose its value quickly, or it might remain a treasure for centuries after the death of every individual involved in the creation of that wealth, like a work of art. It might also be destroyed by random chance well before its predicted value has been exploited. Who deserves to benefit from the wealth that was created by the work of, and paid for by, people who have been dead for generations? The question of who deserves to benefit from the labour X, and how much, becomes very tricky when the real world is taken into account... One might argue that that is what Wills are for

    I recently spoke with someone who was in favor of legalizing all drugs, who would not admit that criminalizing something reduces the frequency at which people do it.

    Was that actually his claim or was he saying that it doesn't necessarily reduce the frequency at which people do it? Clearly the frequency of drug use has gone up since they were made illegal. Now perhaps it would have gone up faster if drug use had not been made illegal but that's rather hard to demonstrate. It's at least plausible that some of the popularity of drugs stems from their illegality as it makes them a more effective symbol of rebellion against authority for teenagers seeking to signal rebelliousness.

    Claiming that criminalizing can't possibly reduce the frequency at which people do something would be a pretty ridiculous claim. Claiming that it hasn't in fact done so for drugs is quite defensible.

    In the real world, PhilGoetz's interlocutor was almost certainly not making the sophisticated point that in some scenarios making X illegal makes it more desirable in a way that outweighs the (perhaps low) extra costs of doing X. If the person had been making this point, it would be very hard to mistake them for the kind of person PhilGoetz describes.

    Portugal, anyone? There is a point when arguments need to be abandoned and experimental results embraced. The decriminalization of drugs in Portugal has seen a scant increase in drug use. QED

    The same goes for policies like Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Many countries around the world have run the experiment of letting gays serve openly and there have been no ill effects.

    Abandon rationalization, embrace reality.

    So you think an increase in drug use following decriminalization supports your view? And you were upvoted?

    The claim of sensible consequentialist (as opposed to moralizing) drug control advocates who are in favor of the War on Drugs is that the War on Drugs, however disastrous, expensive, destructive of liberties, and perverting of justice (to whatever degree they will accept such claims - can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, etc.), is a lesser evil than the consequences of unbridled drug use. This claim is most obviously falsified by a net decrease in drug use, yes, but also falsified by a small increase which is not obviously worse than the War on Drugs since now the anti-War person can use the same argument as the pro-War person was: legalization is the lesser of two evils.

    The benefits and small costs in Portugal are, at least at face value, not worse than a War. Hence, the second branch goes through: the predicted magnitude of consequences did not materialize.

    I agree completely. Note that PhilGoetz, following the subject of the thread, pointed out a good consequence of drug control (that is, good on its own terms) that an opponent of drug control refused to acknowledge. AndyCossyleon apparently thought that the Portugal example is a counterpoint to what PhilGoetz said, which it isn't (though as you point out it is evidence against some views held by drug control advocates). In retrospect, I should have said "rebuts PhilGoetz's point" instead of "supports your view" in the grandparent.
    Funny. The response to AndyCossyleon at the time should have been a link to this post.
    AlexSchell, "scant" is essentially a negative, much like "scarce(ly)" or "hardly" or "negligible/y". Rewriting: "The decriminalization of drugs in Portugal has scarcely seen an increase in drug use." I'd argue that these sentences mean the same thing, and that together, they mean something different from "The decriminalization ... has seen a small increase ..." which is what you seem to have interpreted my statement as, though not completely illegitimately.
    I would still read that as an increase. "Scant," "scarcely," etc., all mean "an amount so small it is negligible." But that's still an increase. 1 + 99^99 isn't 99^99. I understand what is trying to be said in the argument concerning decriminalization, but strictly-speaking, that is an increase in drug use.
    There is something fishy about the words "legalize" and "decriminalize." Buying, selling, making and consuming wine are legal activities in Portugal. Not marijuana.

    Just wanted to say thanks for a very thoughtful article. I've burned through a great deal of time, wondering about the morality (or immorality) of the "arguments are soldiers" mindset.

    The point of banned goods is not that they are banned because of the hazards for the people alone who buy them but for everyone else also. Sulphuric acid for example is easily usable as a weapon especially in concentrated form. (It grows very hot if it touches water. And it is very acidic. So, by using a simple acid proof squirt gun one can do serious damage.)

    And, that's not really all: Suppose I could go into such a shop, proof that I'm sufficiently intelligent to handle dangerous stuff without being a danger for myself and buy a) a PCR machine b) a flu ... (read more)

    Madagascar, obviously.

    Most of the goods you mention aren't restricted at all. I don't need any special permits to buy a PCR machine or anything necessary to run it for example.

    Real tough-mindedness is saying, "Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of 5 children didn't deserve it, but we're going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation." Can you imagine a politician saying that? Neither can I.

    I can imagine it, but I can't say that I can remember it in a similar case. The "if it saves just one life...." arguments have always struck me as idiotic, but apparently there is a large market for it. Is it really the case that so many people think t... (read more)

    Alicorn already told you about how to do quotations.

    Real tough-mindedness is saying, "Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of 5 children didn't deserve it, but we're going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation."

    Interestingly, I independently came to a similar conclusion regarding drug legalization a few days ago, which I expressed during a class discussion on the topic. Out of about forty people in the class, one person other than me seemed to respond positively to this, everyone else (including people who were in favor of legalization) seemed to ignore it.

    "But there is no reason for complex actions with many consequences to exhibit this onesidedness property. Why do people seem to want their policy debates to be one-sided?"

    We do like to vote, you know. We do like to see other people vote. We do expect to see some kind of propagand, some kind of pitch to cast our votes in some certain way. We tend to feel fooled, than we don't see that, what we do expect to see in the right place. No, it isn't reserved exclusively for the politic issues.

    "I don't think that when someone makes a stupid choi... (read more)

    I don't think that when someone makes a stupid choice and dies, this is a cause for celebration.

    Others disagree.

    Well yes, I think the post assumed most others seem to disagree. That's why the point was worth making.

    I was just making a simple factual observation. Why did some people think it was an argument in favor of regulation?

    I've noticed that Argument by Innuendo is unfortunately common, at least in in-person discussions. Basically, the arguer makes statements that seem to point to some conclusion or another, but stops a few steps short of actually drawing a conclusion, leaving the listener to draw the conclusion themselves. When I've caught myself doing this and ask myself why, there are a few reasons that come up, including:

    • I'm testing my audience's intelligence in a somewhat subtle and mean way.
    • I'm throwing ideas out there that I know are more than one or two inferential steps away, and seeing if my audience has heard of them, is curious enough to ask about them, or neither and just proceeds as if I didn't say anything.
    • I want to escape the criticism of the conclusion I'm suggesting, and by making someone else connect the last few dots, I can redirect the criticism towards them instead, or at least deflect it from myself by denying that that was the conclusion that I was suggesting (even if it was).

    Needless to say, this is pretty manipulative, and a generally Bad Thing. But pe... (read more)

    I think it's a good thing to do this. It is analogous to science. If you're a good reasoner and you encounter evidence that conflicts with one of your beliefs, you update that belief. Likewise, if you want to update someone else's belief, you can present evidence that conflicts with it in hopes they will be a good reasoner and update their belief. This would not be so effective if you just told them your conclusion flat out, because that would look like just another belief you are trying to force upon them.
    Possibly related: When Truth Isn't Enough.

    Do you really think you're so smart that you would have been a proper scientific skeptic even if you'd been born in 500 C.E.?

    Yes. "But your genes would be different." Then it wouldn't be me. "Okay, same genes, but no scientific education." Then it wouldn't be me.

    As much as such a thing as 'me' exists then it comes with all the knowledge and skills I have gained either through genetics, training or learning. Otherwise it isn't 'me'.

    So who was that person who started learning the skills that you now have?
    Well, the person who started typing this reply was someone incredibly similar, but not identical, to the person who finished (neither of who are the present me). It was a person who shared genes, who had an almost identical memory of childhood and education, who shares virtually all my goals, interests and dreams and is more like me than any other person that has ever lived. However, that person was not the me who exists now. Extrapolate that backwards, becoming less and less like current me over time and you get an idea of who started learning the skills I currently have. It's not my fault if people have a broken view of what/who they actually are.

    Shouldn't that answer then result in a "Invalid Question" to the original "Would you be a proper scientific skeptic if you were born in 500 CE?" question?

    I mean, what you are saying here is that it isn't possible for you to have been born in 500 C.E., that you are a product of your genetics and environment and cannot be separated from those conditions that resulted in you. So the answer isn't "Yes" it is "That isn't a valid question."

    I'm not saying I agree, especially since I think the initial question can be rephrased as "Given the population of humans born in 500 C.E. and the historical realities of the era, do you believe that any person born in this era could have been a proper scientific skeptic and given that, do you believe that you would have developed into one had your initial conditions been otherwise identical, or at least highly similar?" Making it personal (Would you be...) is just a way of conferring the weight of the statement, as it is assumed that the readers of LW all have brains capable of modelling hypothetical scenarios, even if those scenarios don't (or can't even in principle) match reality.

    The question isn't ... (read more)

    Correct. I made the jump of me appearing as is in 530CE as opposed to 'baby me' since I do not in any logical sense think that baby me is me. So yes, the question is invalid (in my view) but I tried to make it valid by altering the question without explicitly saying I was doing so (i.e. "If you were to pop into existence in 530 CE would you be a scientific skeptic?")
    Nor, by your reasoning, could it possibly ever be your fault, since my current view of what I am has causes in the past, and you didn't exist in the past. By the same reasoning, nothing else could possibly ever be your fault, except possibly for what you are doing in the instant that I blame you for it... not that it matters for practical purposes, since by the time I got around to implementing consequences of that, you would no longer exist. That strikes me as even more broken a view than the one you wish for it to replace... it destroys one of the major functions we use the notion of "a person" to perform.

    I was surprised and pleased to discover that the rock band Switchfoot have a song about the terrible cost to oneself of treating one's arguments as soldiers. It's called "The Sound in My Mouth". (Youtube link, with incorrect lyrics below it; better ones can be found at the bottom of this fansite page)

    It focuses on the social costs rather than the truth-finding costs, but it's still well ahead of where I usually expect to find music.

    to save those who would bother to trouble themselves as i just did... the trouble, the second link is for the album Oh! Gravity but "The Sound in My Mouth" is on the Oh! EP.

    Alternate title: “debates should acknowledge tradeoffs”. I think that mnemonic is more helpful.

    Longer summary: “Debates should acknowledge tradeoffs. Don’t rationalize away apparent good points for the other side; it’s okay and normal for the other side to have some good points. Presumably, those points just won’t be strong enough in total to overwhelm yours in total. (Also, acknowledging tradeoffs is easier if you don’t think of the debate in terms of ‘your side’ and ‘their side’.)”

    An implicit assumption of this article which deserves to be made explicit:

    "All negative effects of buying things from the banned store accrue to the individual who chose to purchase from the banned store"

    In practical terms this would not be the case. If I buy Sulphuric Acid Drink from the store and discover acid is unhealthy and die, that's one thing. If I buy Homoeopathic Brake Pads for my car and discover they do not cause a level of deceleration greater than placebo, and in the course of this discovery run over a random pedestrian, that's morally a different thing.

    The goal of regulation is not just to protect us from ourselves, but to protect us from each other.

    Or, the individual who chooses to purchase from the banned store is able to compensate others for any negative effects.
    Unfortunately we have not yet discovered a remedy by which court systems can sacrifice the life of a guilty party to bring back a victim party from the dead.
    No, but several historical cultures and a few current ones legitimize the notion of blood money as restitution to a victim's kin.
    No amount of money can raise the dead. It's still more efficient to prevent people from dying in the first place. All people are idiots at least some of the time. I don't accept the usage of Homeopathic Brake Pads as a legitimate decision, even if the person using them has $1 billion USD with which to compensate the innocent pedestrians killed by a speeding car. I'll accept the risk of occasional accident, but my life is worth more to me than the satisfaction some "alternative vehicle control systems" nut gets from doing something stupid.
    "Homeopathic brake pads" are a reductio-ad-absurdum of the actual proposal, though — which has to do with products that are not certified, tested, or guaranteed in the manner that you're used to. There are lots of levels of (un)reliability between Homeopathic (works 0% of the time) and NHTSA-Certified (works 99.99% of the time). For instance, there might be Cheap-Ass Brake Pads, which work 99.95% of the time at 10% of the cost of NHTSA-Certified; or Kitchen Sponge Brake Pads, which work 90% of the time at 0.05% of the cost. We do not have the option of requiring everyone to only do things that impose no danger to others. So if someone chooses to use a product that is incrementally more dangerous to others — whether because this lets them save money by buying Cheap-Ass Brake Pads; or because it's just more exciting to drive a Hummer than a Dodge minivan — how do we respond?
    Well, as a society, at some point we set a cut-off and make a law about it. Thus some items are banned while others are not, and some items are taxed and have warnings on them instead of an outright ban. And it's not just low intelligence that's a risk. People can be influenced by advertising, social pressure, information saturation, et cetera. Let's suppose we do open this banned goods shop. Are we going to make each and every customer fill out an essay question detailing exactly how they understand these items to be dangerous? I don't mean check a box or sign a paper, because that's like clicking "I Agree" on a EULA or a security warning, and we've all seen how well that's worked out for casual users in the computer realm, even though we constantly bombard them with messages not to do exactly the things that get them in trouble. Is it Paternalist arrogance when the system administrator makes it impossible to download and open .exe attachments in Microsoft Outlook? Clearly, there are cases where system administrators are paternalist and arrogant; on the other hand, there are a great many cases where users trash their machines. The system administrator has a much better knowledge about safely operating the computer; the user knows more about what work they need to get done. These things are issues of balance, but I'm not ready to throw out top-down bans on dangerous-to-self products.

    I think it is useful here to distinguish politics as a consequence of morality from politics as a agreed set of methods of public decision-making. With the first politics, or politics(A), yes, one has to present all facts as they are regardless of whether they favor one’s stance IF one is to believe there is a moral duty to be rational. In a world where humans all share that particular view on morality, there won’t be a need for the second kind of politics, or politics(B). Because, in that world, the set of methods for rational decision making suffice as t... (read more)

    Debates can easily appear one-sided, for each side. For example, some people believe that if you follow a particular conduct in life, you will go to heaven. To these people, any policy decision that results in sending less people to heaven is a tragedy. But to people who don't believe in heaven, this downside does not exist.

    This is not just an arbitrary example. This shows up all the time in US politics. Until people can agree on whether or not heaven exists, how can any of these debates not seem one-sided?

    There is so much wrong with this example that I don't know where to start.

    You make up a hypothetical person who dies because she doesn't heed an explicit warning that says "if you do this, you will die". Then you make several ridiculous claims about this hypothetical person:

    1) You claim this event will happen, with absolute certainty. 2) You claim this event occurs because this individual has low intelligence, and that it is unfair because a person does not choose to be born intelligent. 3) You claim this event is a tragedy.

    I disagree with all o... (read more)

    I'd like to point out that the statistical value of human life is used by economists for calculations such as Eliezer mentions, so at some point someone has managed to do the math.

    "I was just making a simple factual observation. Why did some people think it was an argument in favor of regulation?"

    A (tiny) note of dissonance here. As noted earlier, any knowledge/understanding naturally constrains anticipation. Wont it naturally follow that a factual observation shall naturally concentrate the probability density in favour of one side of the debate (assuming, of course, that the debate is viewed as having only two possible outcomes, even if each outcome is very broad and contains many variants).

    In this particular example, ... (read more)

    An interesting perspective to take. Bravo!

    There is two problems with making stores that can sell banned things-hurting the public and people that are uneducated. I could go into one of these stores and buy poison and fill my brother's glass with it. That would be a drawback because it would affect my brother who did not go into a store and ignore a safety warning and pick up a bottle of poison and drink it. This would be a problem. An uneducated mother of five children that drinks poison doesn't deserve to die, her children don't deserve to be orphans, and that is asumming that she drinks it herse... (read more)

    [This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply
    But... you can already buy many items that are lethal if forcefully shoved down someone's throat. Knives, for example. It's not obvious to me that a lack of lethal drugs is currently preventing anyone from hurting people, especially since many already-legal substances are very dangerous to pour down someone's throat. From the Overcoming Bias link, "risky buildings" seem to me the clearest example of endangering people other than the buyer.
    I can see that, and I realize that there are advantages to having a store that can sell illegal things. I would now say that such a store would be benificial. There would have to be some restrictions to what that type of store could sell. Explosives like fireworks still could be for use by a licensed person, and nukes would not be sold at all.

    I found this post particularly ironic. The statement that a mother of five would drink sulfuric acid but for government regulation is not "a simple factual observation." How could it be? Since we are imagining an alternative world and the statement is not based on any universal law of human action (nor even historical precedent, in which case it would be a probabilistic statement, not a statement of fact), it is speculation. And a very debatable speculation at that. That is, why would anyone bother to market such a product? Surely it would not be... (read more)

    No, but I'm pretty sure it's shorthand for something like this: which is a simple factual observation, plus this: which, while in principle it's "speculation", seems about as speculative as "if we set up a stall in the street offering free cake, some people would eat it". (I take it it's obvious that "Sulfuric Acid Drink" was intended as hyperbole, to indicate something not quite so transparently harmful, masquerading as a cure. If it isn't, you might want to consider why Eliezer called it "Dr Snakeoil's".) Apparently you disagree on the grounds that actually no one would be selling such things even if such shops existed. I think they very decidedly might. Selling fake cures for real diseases (or in some cases fake diseases) has historically been very profitable for some people, and some of those fake cures have been poisonous. That's a stronger argument. I think Robin may have been envisaging -- and, whether or not he was, Eliezer may have taken him to be envisaging -- that selling in the Banned Products Store exempts you from more than just standard-issue regulatory red tape. I am not an expert on US tort law, so I'll take your word for it that Dr Snakeoil would not be able to get out of trouble just by protesting that he honestly thought his Sulfuric Acid Drink was good against arthritis; if so, then indeed the Banned Products store might be substantially less dangerous than Eliezer suggests.
    Maybe we need a banned products store and a tort-proof banned products store, both. I don't quite follow. Even when people "deserve" what they get, if what they "deserve" is death, their loved ones see that as a negative. Does this mean there are no moral truths, since every choice has a downside? Or am I overgeneralizing when I interpret it as "moral truths have no downside."
    I'm not certain I understand Eliezer's argument there, but I think he simply made a mistake: I agree with you that if you do something that deserves a bad outcome and the bad outcome happens, it can still be bad that that happened and that can be a downside to whatever may have made it easier for you to do the bad thing.
    Tort laws mean that the decision about what products are dangerous enough to warrant getting effectively banned aren't made by scientific literate experts but by laypeople in the jury. Uncertainty about what is and isn't allowed is also bad for business.

    “Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of five children didn’t deserve it, but we’re going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation.” Can you imagine a politician saying that? Neither can I. But insofar as economists have the power to influence policy, it might help if they could think it privately—maybe even say it in journal articles, suitably dressed up in polysyllabismic obfuscationalization so the media can’t quote it.

    This speaks to a very significant issue we face today. Vast sw... (read more)

    This is similar to the chain about "The end justifies the means," that is, as a supporter of vaccination would say that it is good that children are hurt when injected. Although this is obviously logically unreasonable. But in the case of "fools who deserve" it does not seem obvious, because stupidity is something bad, and therefore stupid people are evil, so they deserve punishment for their anger.

    A few ideas:

    You can't save a life. Every living thing is doomed to die. You can only postpone deaths.

    Morality ought to be based on the expected values of decisions people make or actions they do, not the actual outcomes. Morality includes the responsibility to correctly evaluate EV by gathering sufficient evidence.

    Saying “People who buy dangerous products deserve to get hurt!” is not tough-minded. It is a way of refusing to live in an unfair universe. Real tough-mindedness is saying, “Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of five children didn’t deserve it, but we’re going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation.” Can you imagine a politician saying that? Neither can I.

    There's another reason to say the former rather than the latter. Most people will hear the latter this way:

    "Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death ..."

    "TLDR. Okay, you're for regulation."