Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Sociotropical Vacation

Picture this if you will. A brisk October morning, sun glimmering above the horizon as our bleary-eyed protagonist putters patiently at a red light on the way to work. Off his starboard bow, a fellow workaday commuter methodically devours a fast food breakfast sandwich five feet in front of a rear window whose glass has vacated its appointed watchstation. In its place sits a shabbily duct-taped section of opaque garbage can liner. And what to my wondering eyes did appear but a pair of bumper stickers that read "save second base" and "save the ta-tas".

To recap, on my way to work I saw someone driving an unsafe car in an unsafe manner advocating for breast cancer research. The part of me that I call "economist" puzzled at these misplaced margins. Surely if the goal here was to minimize harm, step one would be to put the Egg McMuffin away till the car is safely parked and step two is to then promptly schedule an appointment with an auto glass repair shop.

But Sam, aren't the bumper stickers are a sunk cost at this point? Aren't the relevant marginal decisions about a) the utility of eating now rather than later vs. Pr(accident)*MC(accident) and b) MB(seeing clearly out of the back) vs. MC(fixing the window)? How are some yellowed bumper stickers relevant? Isn't general equilibrium a theory of price equalization rather than a guide for individual behavior?

Yes Barnabas, those are good points. Judged solely by prudence, it's utterly insane to champion marginal contributions to a cause that's probably over-represented anyway while at the same time driving like a fool. But talk is cheap, Barnabas, bumper sticker talk cheaper still. A bumper sticker is a tweet someone else wrote in a feed you didn't choose.

And that's exactly the problem. Specifically, that's exactly the problem with direct majority-rule democracy. The rules that govern individual rational behavior when deciding whether or not to text while driving bind even less while voting. People who put off replacing shattered rear car windows are somehow competent to determine public policy wisely? Please.

But you already knew this Barnabas. You've studied Buchanan and Tullock. What I want you to do is think about this tableau in the shoes of the earthbound spectator. Randomly select an ordinary passerby and ask her if she'd think that driver a hypocrite. I'd give you 10:1 odds that the answer would be a solid, ringing "nope". I don't believe that folks are at all interested in equivocating self-interest and public-interest. In fact, I think most folks would be offended if you tried to compare the two. Think again of Adam Smith's Chinese Earthquake parable. Public policy is ever a matter of the plight of the distant affected, be they earthquake-ravaged Chinese or cancer-ravaged breasts. Breakfast is a matter of right here, right now.

So Barnabas, when you and Gary hear guys like me and Mungo bellyaching about erosions of federalism, about the metastasis of state authority, it's less a matter of the watchdog coming inside of its own volition to watch TV and eat your Doritos, it's more a problem that your indolent teenage son threw the kitchen door open and invited him inside. Constitutional constraints are non-binding unless the median voter insists on them.

Distracted driving isn't euvoluntary. Distracted voting even less so.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?