By Bryan Caplan
I enjoyed scoffing at the 30% of Americans who want to bomb the fictional kingdom of Agrabah. But for balance, note that multiple surveys – and a Penn and Teller episode – have found plenty of Americans who want to ban water – as long as you call it “dihydrogen monoxide.” A national representative survey could easily find 30% support for such a ban.
By construction, these policy proposals have no evidence in their favor. Why then would anyone support them? Prior probabilities. Some people have the prior, “If we’re discussing the bombing of a Muslim country, bomb it.” Some people have the prior, “If we’re discussing the banning of a chemical, ban it.” And as a counter-survey points out, 44% of Democrats favor admitting refugees from the fictional kingdom of Agrabah.
What lesson should we draw? If you’re a strict consequentialist, no lesson at all. If however you think there’s a moral presumption against coercion, widespread coercive priors are a symptom of moral corruption. Decent people say, “After careful examination of the facts and consideration of our options, we regretfully conclude that coercion is the only viable way to prevent great harm,” not “Coercion – hell yes!”