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  • What are You Going to Do About It?

    Posted by John Jay on October 18th, 2007 (All posts by )

    David Foster’s post got me to thinking about the ex-Mayor of Bogota. Unfortunately, my real world experiences are closer to this guy’s observations than what happened in Bogota. In general, I like the Mockus approach to re-establishing an atmosphere of intolerance for incivility. Being a libertarian, I prefer to rely on social opprobrium to discourage behavior that I think is fairly negative, but not negative enough to warrant giving the government more power to regulate.

    Most traffic laws fall in this category for me. I don’t want to see us go the route of the UK and put cameras everywhere to enforce every petty rule. I always worry about the enforcers of such laws. People who put too much faith in governmental solutions assume that society always hires Sheepdogs to watch the flock, but the supply of true Sheepdogs is limited. As rules expand and the need for enforcers grows, the ranks swell with Wolves and Chihuahuas. Have you seen the quality of the bozos at the TSA recently? People who couldn’t even get their act together enough to get a job with the TSA will be monitoring those cameras. Or they’ll be intermittently monitored and the rule of law will be reduced to a stochastic process.

    Another topic that I feel pretty passionately about on a personal scale falls into the category of social rather than legal control – abortion. I find it amusing that many of the most vocal supporters of abortion on the left feel that any expression of social disapproval of abortion is tantamount to a ban. They’d get a lot more support from the right-of-center if they dropped stupidities such as asking for teens to be granted abortions without parental consent. I’d like to see abortion kept legal, but I don’t mind public scorn heaped upon those who would use it as casual birth control. That interaction between laws and ethics keeps society on an even keel without the threat of micromanagement.

    But being the mathematically oriented scientist that I am, I immediately wondered what the boundary conditions are for such an approach. In other words, the Mockus mimes would wind up in a ditch with their throats cut in Mogadishu. So I began to construct a model in my head. The first term is the number of good people being kept down by the Tragedy of the Commons. Bogota obviously had a good number of citizens who were willing to play by the rules, or the mimes would have had the life expectancy of a bunny made of cheese.

    The other term is related to the size, tenacity, and propensity for violence of the opposition. If the behavior results in a material or status gain for the offenders, mimes are not going to work – penalties have to be stiffer than social opprobrium to deter drug dealers. The Mockus approach also will not work if the offenders are generally not really getting anything out of their behavior but are generally prone to violence, as in, say the crowd that Rob The Bouncer describes as gathering on the streets of the Meatpacking District after the Chelsea clubs close, well, you can easily envision a bunch of drunken Guidos playing mime-soccer round about 4:00AM on a Saturday morning on the streets of NYC. PETA instinctively recognizes this dynamic – PETA supporters throw paint on rich women wearing furs, but ignore leather-wearing Hell’s Angels.

    As Shannon mentioned, a rational libertarian has to look at any particular social problem and its proposed solution as one step on an evolutionary trajectory. What works in one situation will not work in another, and even the libertarian ideology itself is based upon an assumed set of boundaries for social interactions.


    3 Responses to “What are You Going to Do About It?”

    1. david still Says:

      I too, though hardly a Libertarian, do not want the govt to monitor and regulate behavior. One need not be an L to dislike govt interference. But I do like oversight and regulation in any number of matters to ensure a well-regulated society. To cite but something close to your home: do you approve of accrediting agencies, in part monitored and/or regulated by the govt (Dept of Ed) or would you do away with accrediting agencies for schools at every level?

    2. Robert Schwartz Says:

      An interesting counterpoint to this post is the articles on Slate “American Lawbreaking” by Tim Wu.

      Prof. Wu makes the point that one of the mechanisms society employs to deal with the mass of obsolete laws is to simply ignore them.

    3. Oclarki Says:

      I’m thinking of the situations we face so often in traffic. Given the numbers of vehicles on the road, there is very little social cost to acting like a jerk. Being inside a car grants people the anonimity to act like jerks. Tailgating and cutting people off on a crowded highway happens all the time. does it happen very often in a residential area where ther is a likelihood of the person you affront being your neighbor?
      To make matters worse, attempting to enforce the norms of good behavior often has the opposite effect. I’m thinking of left lane speed enforcers, or the times someone has cut me off and have sped up and cut them off to give them a taste of their own medicine.

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