The Mind of Robin Hanson: The Inside Story
By Bryan Caplan
People occasionally accuse my colleague Robin Hanson of extreme dogmatism. But they don’t know him like I do. When I first met Robin Hanson, he earnestly believed that voters were rational and selfish. He rejected any model that violated these assumptions as fatally flawed. And he was already almost forty years old. To argue with a person who fits this description is usually fruitless.
But not in Robin’s case. Over the last twelve years, I’ve managed to almost completely change his mind about voters. Robin now refutes the kind of views he used to hold with great insight and brilliance. His latest post on “hard-to-enforce” laws and legal double standards is another fine example:
I often post on why we make some behaviors illegal, while leaving similar behaviors legal. For example, yesterday I posted on why low status jobs get work hour limits, and high status jobs don’t. When I post on such topics, many commenters suggest that the explanation is it is harder to enforce laws against the now-legal behaviors.
When I first met Robin, he would have been sympathetic to this argument. But he’s learned a lot in the meanwhile:
So I thought it might be worth pointing out how little of our legal variance is explained by difficulty of enforcement.
First, note that we now tolerate huge variations in the ease of catching law violators, without exempting hard-to-catch cases. For example, sales tax must be paid not only when using a credit cared at a chain store, but also for cash purchases at flea markets. Income tax must be paid not only for full-time employees of big firms, but also when paying cash to a transient to do some yard work. It is just as illegal to shoplift a dress from Macy’s as it is to nap a trinket from some’s house you visit. Putting trash in the wrong recycling bin is against the rules even when there’s almost no chance of catching you. Rape can be quite hard to prove, yet few are sympathetic to legalizing rape in the situations where rapists are hardest to catch.
Oh, and by the way:
Second, note that it usually makes more sense to adapt to hard-to-catch cases by increasing punishments, rather than exempting them from punishment. They hung horse thieves in the old wild west not because horses were more valuable than other items whose theft didn’t induce a death penalty, but because it was much harder to catch horse thieves. [emphasis mine]
What really explains legal double standards? The fact that voters want legal double standards:
For example, if we wanted we could limit the number of hours per week that students study for classes. Yes, that rule might be hard to enforce without other supporting changes. But we could require that studying only be done in approved study halls. Or we could increase the punishment for violations. Or we could just accept that the law would be evaded often. But it seems to me far more likely that we don’t actually want to limit student hours per week of study.
Robin and I continue to have many disagreements (see here and here for starters). But I never tire of arguing with him. There really always is a chance I’ll change his mind. And of course he’s often changed mine – it’s thanks to Robin that I’m a betting man and a medical skeptic.
P.S. Now let us all use social pressure to induce Robin to write his first book.