Minor changes with major effects
Humans are not hard wired to understand events that impact hundreds of millions of people. Recall Stalin’s claim that, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.”
The other day I was taking a shower in a hotel, and noticed how the shower curtain was bowed outward, to create a less cramped showering experience. You’ve probably noticed this as well. Somewhere along the line, an unsung hero figured out a way of marginally improving the showering experience of hundreds of millions of people, without an expensive remodeling of hotel bathrooms. Did he or she get a patent? Should their invention have been allowed to be patented? Or was it “obvious”? I don’t know.
The curtain rod improvement seems tiny, as at the individual level it’s only a minor change. But the impact on total human welfare is significant. It’s hard for people to appreciate the significance of these sorts of minor innovations, as we are not good at imagining small utility changes spread out among vast numbers of people.
The same is true of certain types of crimes. The famous “shoe bomber” was unsuccessful in his attempt to blow up an airliner. But even if he had been successful, the greatest damage might have been in pushing regulators to require all airline passengers to remove their shoes at security.
How do I know that many small inconveniences can add up to be the equivalence of lives lost? Revealed preference. We know that a certain number of people will die each year while driving to a summer vacation. While the risk for each individual motorist is small, in aggregate there is a near certainty that many lives will be lost. But we still choose to go on vacation by car, rather than pick a safer option such as flying or staying home and watching TV.
When hackers create computer viruses that inconvenience hundreds of millions of people, they are committing crimes that are much worse than murder. Unfortunately, our criminal justice system often relies on our moral intuitions, which are unreliable when it comes to small effects spread out over many people.
Tyler Cowen linked to a fascinating interview with Martin Shkreli, who discussed the Sam Bankman-Fried case. At one point Shkreli wondered if white color criminals are treated too harshly, as they haven’t actually murdered anyone. I do believe that some white color criminals are treated too harshly, especially when they violate silly regulations such as insider trading rules. But when white color criminals damage million of people, even in a nonviolent fashion, they may commit crimes that are worse than murder.
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