Friday, July 24, 2015

Individually Prudent, Institutionally Abhorrent

Sandra Bland is the latest (and I predict, tragically, not the last) in a string of unfortunate encounters between police and citizens. ICYMI, she was arrested during a minor traffic stop and [mysteriously] died in police custody. Huffpo has the transcript of the arrest. ATSRTWT. Unfortunately, a great deal of nattering and legal analysis so far has dealt with the speck of the arrest, ignoring the log of her jailhouse death. But as long as we're on the topic anyway, there's something that's been bugging me for a while now and this incident fits the trope.

viz.: There are a great many privately rational decisions that end up collectively irrational. In terms the Scholastics would recognize, it is often prudent for an individual to defer to even unreasonable requests made by belligerent police. The alternative, after all, can be a beating, a tasing, or a broad-daylight street execution. It is often prudent to avoid certain parts of town at certain times of day. The alternative can be a mugging, a stabbing, or an unking. It is often prudent to remain reasonably sober at certain social gatherings. The alternatives are unsavory.

The trouble with our rhetoric, with our language perhaps, is that it's all too easy to conflate the part for the whole, and the whole for the part. Most of us don't want to live in an America where cops are a pack of undisciplined goons with no regard (or knowledge!) of the laws of the land. Most of us don't want to live in an America where racial animus is as thick as Okefenokee midges on an August afternoon. Most of us don't want to live in an America where it's okay to take sexual license with an incapacitated woman.

Alas, we have the institutions we have, not the ones we want. For individuals, it is wise to treat the rest of society as if it were a force of nature. It wouldn't be victim-blaming to advise folks in flood-prone areas to stock up on some extra sandbags. For society, it is an arrogant slight to accept an unjust status quo. When a politician or pundit tells college-aged girls to dress modestly and avoid strong drink, the subtext is tacit acceptance of the "she's asking for it" trope. It's reasonable to expect that people speaking far-mode generalities to be speaking of the class rather than the instance.

The same intuitions apply to an appreciation of EE violations. It might be (usually is, indeed) individually rational to raise prices during an emergency, but folks don't like living in a world where the iron laws of scarcity make it necessary.

We have the laws of economics we have, not the ones we want.

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