The best sentence I read today

by on September 7, 2007 at 9:26 pm in Philosophy | Permalink

First, your model of the individual is very likely based on you.

You’ll find lots of contrarianism (for libertarians, that is, and note we should always be polite to contrarians) here and here.  I also enjoyed this bit:

This is the other thing I don’t get about small government types. You
protest so vociferously that government takes choices away from you.
But a whole lot of choices are BORING. If I never once think about car
bumper safety standards for 25mph crashes, I will never miss it. I do
not want to carefully match my car safety standards to my most likely
driving patterns and save two grand in the process. I would not enjoy
that process. (Perhaps you would, and you would rather have the money.)
I’ve never been a comparison shopper or a meticulous consumer. Maybe my
model of the individual is too biased by my experience. But I don’t
want to figure out how much coliform bacteria I can tolerate on my
spinach, given my health…

…*I can hear you already: "But you are FORCING me to take that deal
too.". Yes. But right now our system FORCES me to comparison shop.
Either way, someone gets FORCED to do something, and I don’t see a
justice interest on one side or the other. Absent a justice interest,
we might as well just go with the system that creates the most utility

1 mtc September 7, 2007 at 10:20 pm

I agree with the first sentence, but the subsequent argument is rather weak. The market doesn’t have any mechanisms to filter out low quality products? C’mon. I would like to hear some commentary from Dr. Cowen on this (I did buy your book after the secret blog and podcast offers, perhaps I might be so lucky for a short MR post?). Forget the moral argument of being FORCED to comparison shop, my contention is that market forces would mostly mitigate the need to sans gov’t regulation on cars/food/whatever.

2 Russ Nelson September 7, 2007 at 11:12 pm

Agreed, the second argument is nonsense. He could always pick some other government’s choices, and then stick without further choosing.

3 kwark September 8, 2007 at 12:11 am

Yeah, a rather lame argument. But I certainly don’t yearn for the good ‘ol days before gubmint regulation of drugs. Just think, you could get everything from arsenic-based tonics to radioactive “vitalizers.” Absent some government oversight we’d likely have some modern equivalent of these wonders.

4 kwark September 8, 2007 at 12:12 am

Yeah, a rather lame argument. But I certainly don’t yearn for the good ‘ol days before gubmint regulation of drugs. Just think, you could get everything from arsenic-based tonics to radioactive “vitalizers.” Absent some government oversight we’d likely have some modern equivalent of these wonders.

5 Steve Sailer September 8, 2007 at 12:31 am

I prefer shopping at Costco to shopping at, say, Target because Costco gives me fewer choices, typically only one in a category

6 Tom West September 8, 2007 at 6:56 am

your model of the individual is very likely based on you

Absolutely true and this is the main reason why I find it sad that arguments about social direction get so rancorous. My preferences for big government are built around *my* model of individuals (people who are prepared to sacrifice some choice/liberty for “guarantees” of safety) which is, of course, built around me.

Can the benefit we might realize (from experimenting with a free market alternative to public health regulation) be greater than the risk?

It all depends how much you value freedom versus how much you value risk.

My social preferences are currently ascendant, but I’m not going to take it personally that people with other preferences are trying to change society away from *my* preferences. After all, in the few cases where my society differs from my preferences, I’m making (admittedly minimal) effort to change it.

I don’t think that (barring the outrageous), that having different social preferences should tar one side or the other as evil, stupid, or both.

7 R. Richard Schweitzer September 8, 2007 at 7:15 am

There is a hint in this chatter of being happy to shuck off some individual “burdens” (boring things?) to other social institutions, be they the mechanisms of governments, religious organizations, or even the immediate family (a favorite of adolescents). This is not far removed from escaping individual “responsibilities” (even for one’s self) by their transfer to a larger group, again, predominately those organizations we call governments. You know, “The Schools are doing a poor job of educating our children!” Whilst I watch Nascar on TV.

8 spencer September 8, 2007 at 11:26 am

What, nobody made the argument that firms sell safe products because it is to their own interest to do so.

Of course this is a true statement of what happens in the world. But on the other hand doesn’t the existence of government safety regulation actually encourage this type of firm behavior. Government regulations encourages firms to act responsible because they know their place in the market is not going to be undercut by some other firm selling an unsafe product for a slightly lower price. The counter-factual argument advanced by libertarians is that without regulations virtually all firms would sell safe products. The non-libertarians argue that in the absence of regulations many firms would be concerned with safety, but there would also be a large number of firms that would just try to be the low cost supplier and this would lead to many unsafe products. The non-libertarians thinks there is always a fast-buck operator out there while libertarians assume that they will not survive. Yes, they may not survive in the original line of business but they will immediately be replaced by another fast-buck supplier and/or the old supplier will just go into another line of business. Libertarians are arguring that someone will not take the opportunity to sell an unsafe product at a lower price. That line of though seems to be in direct opposition to many other libertarian arguments.

Isn’t this what we are seeing in the example of all the unsafe Chinese products. They were purchased by vendors because they were the low cost supplier. But even the US vendors — who should have been much better positioned to detect unsafe products then the typical consumer –did not go to the trouble of double checking why these suppliers were the low cost provider. According to libertarian theory the US vendors would have kept these unsafe products off the shelves. Why didn’t your theory work?

9 Yancey Ward September 8, 2007 at 11:43 am

Steve Sailer,

I have an even better solution for you. Send me your money and I will send you goods. You only have to make one choice rather than many.

10 Mike September 8, 2007 at 2:19 pm

It’s not that all government oversight or protection is necessarily a bad thing; it’s that one has to eventually ask, “When and where does it stop?” In other words, when is enough – enough?

Some government bureaucracies that serve legitimate purposes tend to, overtime, begin to think like the private sector but without the specter of negative consequences for making wrong decisions – striving to do more for their constituents (customers) those regulating bureaucracies may inadvertently create more problems than solutions and even limit choices and efficiencies all in the name of “serving the public”.

Tread lightly…

11 spencer September 8, 2007 at 4:28 pm

Joshua — if your version of how food regulation came about is correct why do we have all these public records and other historic documents that demonstrate how they fought it tooth and nail?

12 TGGP September 8, 2007 at 5:46 pm

mickslam, have you ever heard of Gabriel Kolko?

spencer, China does have government oversight. They killed the guy who was supposed to ensuring their stuff was sight.

13 price September 8, 2007 at 10:51 pm

Steven Sailor:
“I prefer shopping at Costco to shopping at, say, Target because Costco gives me fewer choices, typically only one in a category”

I’m glad there are enough choices in retail stores for you to find your preferred retail experience.

14 Russell Nelson September 9, 2007 at 1:22 am

KingM: I’m a frustrated voter sometimes, too. It’s worse if the decision is an important one. I always feel like I should have spent more time on research.

Hard problems are hard problems. Pawning them off on the government and then claiming that they’re solved is just a shell game.

15 ChrisA September 9, 2007 at 6:49 am

“What the free marketeers don’t mention when they suggest private testing and certification, is that those are industries prone to natural monopoly. Underwriters Labs and TUV are both monopolistic in the US and Germany respectively.

If we must have monopolies, better that they are publicly run or regulated, with open processes.”

Of course making them Government monopolies means that they can never be supplanted. Likewise anyone who thinks that Government processes are “open” obviously hasn’t been paying attention. Also, Government agencies never screw up and hide the fact?

Surely the only argument for preventing sales of non-regulated goods (while keeping a regulated system) is that people are too stupid and will chose the non-regulated ones against their own best interests. Some of you need to get out of the US more, in the third world people rely happily on brands and on reputations and ignore government regulations (even the FDA gasp). And this system works just as well (if not better).

On the “too much choice” thing, if this were really an issue don’t you think the supermarkets would have noticed this as a way to improve sales? I suspect people like saying this because of the apparent paradox, not because it’s true.

16 John Dewey September 9, 2007 at 8:23 am

tom west: “*my* model for humans is based on me, which means it’s obvious that people prefer security over freedom to a moderate extent, and that they trust institutions that purport to serve them over private institutions.”

Well, certainly our individual models must be biased by our own preferences. But we do sometimes have access to the preferences of the at-large population. For example, polls in the U.S. and elsewhere consistently show that doctors and nurses are among the most trusted professionals. That suggests to me that voters will continue to prefer the licensing and regulation of those professions.

I guess I don’t accept that *my* model for humans is based on only my preferences.

17 Mike Huben September 9, 2007 at 8:55 am

“Of course making them Government monopolies means that they can never be supplanted. Likewise anyone who thinks that Government processes are “open” obviously hasn’t been paying attention. Also, Government agencies never screw up and hide the fact?”

What a wonderful illustration for my my Libertarianism in One Lesson: “Require perfection as the only applicable standard to judge government: libertarianism, being imaginary, cannot be fairly judged to have flaws.”

Private business processes are RARELY open. Private businesses go to extraordinary lengths to conceal or paper over their screw ups. If you’ve ever worked in one, you should know. Sunshine laws, FOIA, and other public openness is much greater in government than business.

18 Eric H September 9, 2007 at 11:09 am

Consumer Reports, Angie’s List, UL, various targeted magazines and online reviews are all third party reputation generators. The manufacturers/providers may also generate and maintain their own reputations (remember J&J and Tylenol?). Ben Klein’s work on this is useful.

Mike, the theoretically open state may be more open than business, but that doesn’t mean it works in practice the way it does in theory. FOIA requests aren’t always straight forward; Sunshine laws aren’t always followed; I’m not sure what “other public openness” means; but I’m sure we can all think of a number of important public decisions whose foundations are inscrutable except in long retrospect. Kolko’s history is a great place to start, state-sponsored cartelization of tobacco a few years ago was instructive, and the increasingly secretive executive branch is not reassuring.

Further, I am not sure how much relative weight I would give to actual outcomes vs. openness of the processes used to get there. Isn’t Megan’s original point that she doesn’t want to think about such things?

19 Mike Huben September 9, 2007 at 2:26 pm

Eric H, what is your comment about government but another demand for perfection? If I was to make similar demands for markets, I’d point out that sometimes market players used coercion, were monopolies, didn’t act rationally, etc. We live in a world of second best solutions: demanding perfection from the one you dislike is a weak rhetorical trick.

UL performs functions other than reputation: it creates standards. Are they in the public interest? They’re private, it hasn’t been a subject of open public debate, we don’t know.

Megan’s original point about not wanting to think about such things makes government ideal for the same reason wikipedia works so well: anybody who wants can participate, and if they see something being done wrong, they can bring it to the public attention. We can be largely confident that most problems we’d discern if we looked for them are found by somebody else who really cares about them. Public information has large positive externalities.

20 Nicholas Weininger September 9, 2007 at 7:05 pm

The real problem with safety-regulation regimes is that you’ll always end up with people who want to do something new and different being in a situation like this:

Here’s the asymmetry of justice that Megan and the other safety defenders don’t see. The cost of the regulatory regime is that people like Salatin lose their right to produce and innovate as they see fit. The benefit accrues to people who just want to be protected by others rather than having to make “boring” choices to protect themselves.

But the egalitarian calculation of utility is morally wrong here, because one Joel Salatin is worth far more than a million lazy, bored consumers like Megan. Of course, in a democracy the Megans will always outvote the Joel Salatins. That’s one of the things that’s wrong with democracy.

21 liberty September 9, 2007 at 9:07 pm


the manufacturers of safe toys have a very strong incentive to advertise the safety of their toys – they want to justify their higher price and win over the customers. They will go to great lengths to show why their product is superior. And people demand safe toys and are willing to pay more if they know them to be safer, so this will be a winning strategy. In addition, the demand for this knowledge, from an objective, trustworthy source will be great, so third party suppliers of such information will also be successful in this market.

So, no, people won’t look at the toys and know – they will know via advertising complete with guarantees from the safe companies, and via third party magazines and so forth.

22 Kevin Carson September 10, 2007 at 3:49 am

Mike Huben,

Ever hear about “the Baptist and the Bootlegger”?

The “unimportant” stuff that Salatin wants to do amounts, cumulatively, to the right to run a small business without being shut out of the market by high regulatory entry barriers designed by the major players to protect themselves from competition.

The main beneficiaries of those restrictions are the big agribusiness interests. You know, the same ones behind requiring expensive RFID tracking of livestock (for “safety,” of course) so that small livestock operations can’t participate in decentralized local economies outside the corporate machine. All this stuff is passed in the name of “public safety,” but public safety is the last refuge of scoundrels. And big government liberals are the useful idiots of big business.

23 G September 10, 2007 at 7:04 am

Voters are nowhere near ready to give up government regulation of food and drugs. They are not about to allow unlicensed doctors and nurses to practice medicine. Why do libertarians pursue these positions with such fervor that they undermine their basic message and continue to be branded as kooky? It sometimes seems as if they want to remain a tiny influence – that they achieve status by remaining an intellectual fringe group.

Because excessive regulations on drugs and doctors increases health care costs, which causes a large amount of suffering every year in America? Why should my doctor have to get a bachelor’s degree to practice medicine? Why should my dentist have to be proficient in dissecting pig livers? And why should people suffer because voters think they are protecting some dumb consumer (who is always “that other guy”) from hurting him or her self? Why should the process of creative destruction not be allowed to reduce safety costs? If most of the cost didn’t end up on the shoulders of millions of Americans trying afford health care, I wouldn’t be mention it either.

I mean, lets be serious. Do sick people go to Mexico for medical care if they can afford to be treated in America? Do they buy black-market medication if they can get prescription medicine? Of course not. Why do we think they’d all of a suddenly engage in self-destructive behavior just because the government would let them? I’m sure if medical safety laws were repealed, more people would suffer due to malpractice. But those would be people who couldn’t afford care before, or would rather have substandard care in order to spend their money elsewhere.

Comparing public health regulation to what we had before it is like comparing one turd to another. Caveat emptor is a perversion of the market process whereby producers can make unbacked claims, essentially defaulting on contracts of sale with no penalty. When courts refuse to uphold contracts, of course markets aren’t going to work. Portraying caveat emptor policies as evidence of what happens without consumer-safety legislation is a straw-man.

But its completely false to suggest that government regulation is needed for safe products. Look at every dangerous sport and activity, from SCUBA to rock climbing to motorsports, and you’ll see private organizations responsible for safety testing and approval. Proponents of public-safety regulation would have to show that the targets of their laws are in some manner different from others where the market works.

Now it may be that regulation is the most economical way to ensure buyer-seller contracts are upheld, and that is fine (i.e., we can safely assume no one wants cyanide in their drinking water). But there is a large difference between government action designed to enforce contracts, and government action designed to protect the consumer from him or her self.

24 Harald Korneliussen September 10, 2007 at 9:40 am

John Dewey: “Voters are nowhere near ready to give up government regulation of food and drugs. They are not about to allow unlicensed doctors and nurses to practice medicine. Why do libertarians pursue these positions with such fervor that they undermine their basic message and continue to be branded as kooky?”

I think it’s because they _are_ kooky. For the kind of libertarian that votes for the Libertarian party, I fully expect him to mean that not only are the current choices suboptimal, but immoral, criminal, unconstitutional and comparable to rape.

25 Noah Yetter September 10, 2007 at 12:02 pm

To a libertarian, there IS a justice interest, because preserving freedom Is The Point Of The Whole Thing. An arrangement where you are allowed to choose is inherently more just than one where you are not.

Never mind the factual errors in the comparison shopping vs. government standards story…

26 John Dewey September 10, 2007 at 2:07 pm

G: “I think voters would be receptive to allowing more use of experimental drugs, and lowering the requirements for people to become doctors.”

That’s a lot different than saying that voters will accept elimination of drug regulations and accept elimination of medical licensing. Libertarians I’ve read do not argue for just easing of regulations and lowering of standards. They argue for outright elimination of both.

For what it’s worth, I do not believe voters will accept lowering the requirements for medical practitioners.

G: ” It doesn’t matter to me if something is politically expedient or polls well.”

That’s exactly my point. Libertarians really don’t care whether their recommendations are implemented. If voters overwhelmingly favor medical licensing, why would elected officials ever change that? Elected officials do pay attention to polls because that’s the only efficient way for they can determine the views of the millions of people they serve.

27 G September 10, 2007 at 2:59 pm


I’ll agree that libertarians are too uncompromising. All of the libertarians I know are completely apolitical, but that ones which are involved in politics do seem to be too “far out there” for most people. In any case, I think you are right that libertarians aren’t going to get anywhere unless they advocate smaller, bite-sized changes. But when arguing over what government should do to produce a desired outcome, polling is useless, unless its polling of experts (and even then I’d prefer a prediction market be used).

The point is that any unnecessary restriction in the supply of any good or service is going to drive the price up, and decrease availability. Now, you may be correct in that we still get by, and we do. But that does not mean things could be better, and less people could suffer from medical problems.

28 Saul September 12, 2007 at 2:57 am

Some choices are a complete waste of mental bandwidth, and it varies from consumer to consumer. Some people are meticulous consumers of computers, but just want a reasonable toaster; other people are very particular about their toaster, but just want a reasonable laptop. Consumer Reports and other organizations do help with the research, but you still have to read and understand all the options, and often the recommended products are difficult to find or no longer available.

In fact, sometimes manufacturers intentionally create frivolous choices, hoping that consumers will just resign themselves to choosing randomly. The manufacturer with the most different kinds of crap–and thus the most shelf space–actually fares well under this strategy. How else do we explain the toothpaste aisle with 8 different kinds of Colgate?

I too loathe unnecessary consumer choice, so I created Reasonable Goods, an online catalog of one product in each category that’s guaranteed to be reasonable for most people. For anyone who doesn’t know which one to buy and doesn’t care, now you can just get something reasonable.

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