Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Paradox of Control

Eliezer Yudkowsky at Overcoming Bias explained scarcity as psychologists think of it: as something becomes less attainable, you value it more. It's not clear how widely this applies but I can see it function in many areas such as dating, fads, and fashion. While Yudkowsky explains the phenomenon with evolutionary psychology (our ancestors had to grab what was scarce or they'd die out) we can also see it as signaling. If you have something that's hard to get, it suggests you're important, hip, or otherwise exceptional in some way.

Contrast this with Robin Hanson's theory of regulation. If a regulator can require something of a person but doesn't, the person will likely conclude doing what the regulator wants isn't all the important. If you can ban something but don't, then it's not all that dangerous. If you can require something but don't, then it's not all that helpful. A lack of regulation is a signal that tells people that if they made a bad decision, they'd still be alright.

Again, it's not clear how widely this framework applies but we can imagine quite a bit of overlap. Drugs come to mind first. If you ban drugs, people will want to do them more to either suggest they're hip or to get them while they can. If you don't ban drugs, people (possibly the same group, possibly different) will then conclude they're aren't a big deal and use them. In other words, if you don't want anyone in a society to use drugs, there's nothing you can do about it.


Rhett said...

Perhaps it is correct to say that there is nothing you can do to keep people from using drugs. However, if one of the reasons for doing drugs is because it is the lure of forbidden fruit, then that temptation and reason will be taken away if the government stopped its ban and its war on drugs. It's possible that lifting the ban would initially lead to more people experimenting with drugs, but over the long-term it's likely that the allure and hipness would disappear. It's also likely that more addicts would seek help if there was less of a stigma associated with drug-use and addiction. That's just my two cents.

By the way, I love Krugman on ABC's "This Week" today. You'd think that George Will was the economics professor who believed in free markets with his explanations; Krugman, on the other hand, never comes across as a believer in free markets and typically endorses government interference. I wish ABC News would pit Paul Krugman in one corner against Dr. Walter Williams in the other - that would be educational and entertaining!

David said...

True, but that's why I make mention of the two different groups. We can imagine there are some that love drugs but fear the law, some that wouldn't do drugs but want to stick it to the law, and some that both love drugs and want to stick it to them. Think about Prohibition. During Prohibition, there were those that drank because it's fun and those that drank because it's illegal/dangerous. After Prohibition, we have more of the former and fewer of the latter. Curious, though, what was the net change on that.