Tag Archives: freedom

When is forced organ selfishness good for you?

Simon Rippon claims having a market for organs might harm society:

It might first be thought that it can never be a good thing for you to have fewer rather than more options. But I believe that this attitude is mistaken on a number of grounds. For one, consider that others hold you accountable for not making the choices that are necessary in order to fulfil your obligations. As things stand, even if you had no possessions to sell and could not find a job, nobody could criticize you for failing to sell an organ to meet your rent. If a free market in body parts were permitted and became widespread, they would become economic resources like any other, in the context of the market. Selling your organs would become something that is simply expected of you when the financial need arises. A new “option” can thus easily be transformed into an obligation, and it can drastically change the attitudes that it is appropriate for others to adopt towards you in a particular context.

He’s right that at that moment where you would normally throw your hands in the air and move on, you are worse off if an organ market gives you the option of paying more debts before declaring your bankruptcy. But this is true for anything you can sell. Do we happen to have just the right number of salable possessions? By Simon’s argument people should benefit from bans on selling all sorts of things. For instance labor. People (the poor especially) are constantly forced to sell their time – such an integral part of their selves – to pay rent, and other debts they had no choice but to induce. If only they were protected from this huge obligation that we laughably call an ‘option’. Such a ban might be costly for the landlord, but it would be good for the poor people, right? No! The landlords would react and not rent to them.

So why shouldn’t we expect the opposite effect if people are allowed to sell more of their possessions? People who currently don’t have the assets or secure income to be trusted with loans or ongoing rental payments might be legitimately offered such things if they had another asset to sell. Think of all the people who would benefit from being able to mortgage their kidney to buy a car instead of riding to some closer job while they gradually save up.

In general when negotiating, it’s best to not have options that are worse for you. When the time comes to carry out your side of a deal, it’s true this means being forced to renege. But when making the deal beforehand, you do better to have the option of carrying out your part later, so that the other person does their part. And in a many shot game, you do best to be able to do your part the whole time, so the trading (which is better than not trading) continues.

Divide individuals for utilitarian libertarianism

or Why I could conceivably support banning smoking part 2 (at the request of Robert Wiblin, who would not support banning smoking)

A strong argument for individuals having complete freedom in decisions affecting nobody else is that each person has much better information about what they want and the details of their situation than anyone else does or could. For example it is often argued that people should choose for themselves how much fat to eat without government intervention, as they have intimate knowledge of how much they like eating fat and how much they dislike being fat, and what degree of mockery their social scene will administer and so forth. Not only that, but they have a much stronger incentive to get the decision right than anyone else.

A counterargument often made here is that people are just so irrational that they don’t know what’s good for them. Sometimes it’s not clear how anyone else would do better, being people themselves, and people in complicated organizations full of other motives no less. Sometimes it’s not clear whether people are actually that irrational in real life, or if they manage to compensate.

However one situation where it seems quite likely that other people would be better informed on your preferences and how an outcome will affect you is when you are making decisions that will affect you far in the future.  The average seventy five year old probably has more in common with the next average seventy five year old than they have in common with their twenty five year old selves, at least in some relevant respects. The stranger people are the less true this is presumably, but most people are not strange.  So for instance a bunch of old people dying of lung cancer have a much better idea of how much you would like lung cancer than you do when you are weighing it up in the decision to smoke or not much earlier in life.

This might not matter if people care a lot about their far future selves, as they can of course seek out people to ask about how horrible or great which experiences are. However even then they are doing no better than anyone else who does that, so there is no argument to be made that they have much more intimate knowledge of their own preferences and situation.

You could still argue that I have much more of an interest than anyone else in my own future, if only a slight one compared to how much my future self cares about herself. But I also have a lot to gain by exploiting her and discounting her feelings, so it’s not clear at all from a utilitarian perspective that I should be free to make decisions that only affect myself, but far into the future.

The simple way to make this argument is to say that the ‘individual’ is temporally too big a unit to be best ruled over by one part in a (temporal) position of power. The relevant properties of the right sized unit, as far as the usual arguments for libertarianism are concerned, are lots of information and shared care, and according to these a far future self is drifting toward being a different person. You shouldn’t be allowed to externalize onto them as much as you like for the same reasons that go for anyone else.

Externalizing between conformers

or Why I could conceivably support banning smoking, part 1

Suppose that people are rational and their goals are consistent, and they are free to choose whatever activities they like, as long as they don’t harm others. Suppose we don’t care about equality or whether lifestyles are nihisistic, or anything else Wikipedia claims might be wrong with libertarianism. Should we expect people to approximately end up with the best sets of behaviour? If they smoke, should we infer that they like smoking more than they dislike having lung cancer far in the future? If they watch intellectual documentaries rather than porn should we assume that they have wisely established that they like looking smart more than raunchy fantasy? Many think so, and support libertarianism for this reason.

This makes sense if humans are independently choosing activities. But the all time favorite activity of nearly everyone is doing what other people are doing. This makes such an argument more complicated.

Imagine everyone is doing A. Everyone likes doing B more than doing A, but not as much as they like conformity. There would be a huge gain to a coordinated shift to B, but nobody moves there alone. In some such situations those involved arrange coordination, but often it is impossible. If there are many equilibria like this, and no means to move to better ones, intervention by someone with the power to force a coordinated move could be a great thing.

A good example of this I saw was during first year at college. Everyone used to go to Southpac to drink. I was baffled, as it was probably not just the worst night club around, but actually the least pleasant place I had ever been, possibly but not definitely excluding ankle deep in poo and mud with rotten meat juice running up my arms and dogs clawing at me. When I asked, everyone said they hated it, but it was overall the best place to go, because that’s where everyone else went. It seemed that there were too many people for any student to easily coordinate everyone going somewhere else, so the original equilibrium remained until Southpac was closed down for using (cheap, poisonous) methylated spirits in the drinks. The student council got sponsorship somewhere else, and everyone else went there instead.

Southpac Elsewhere
Everyone else Southpac 2 1
Elsewhere 0 3

Payoffs for Roger in choosing  a nightclub

In the above table, assume ‘everyone else’ is made up of people in the same situation as Roger. Roger doesn’t want to dance alone, so he gets 2 happiness from going to the same club as everyone else. He also doesn’t like being attached to the floor by stickiness and vomit, but it’s less of an issue, so he gets 1 happiness from going anywhere but Southpac. Everyone going to Southpac and everyone going elsewhere are both Nash equilibria, but the going elsewhere equilibria is half as good again.

Why wouldn’t people be able to coordinate to change? One reason is group size or ungainliness. The other is that liking the current activity sends a signal. Suggesting everyone choose a different activity to signal group loyalty for instance marks you as disloyal as fast as refusing to participate alone does.

This doesn’t necessarily mean government intervention is necessary. That might still be worse than freedom, because if the government were to legislate culture it would be hard to verify that they were doing it in only the justified instances. It does seem to mean that free choice will not lead to the best outcomes however, undermining some justification for libertarianism.

Whether we should be concerned about externalities that others choose to bear is a matter of contention. If you should be encouraged against an activity because others want to do the same as you and they don’t like that activity, you should probably also be encouraged not to demonstrate homosexuality where it is unpopular or be ugly for instance. These also harm others, because they choose to disapprove. I think most would disagree that externalities caused by others choosing to care what you are doing should be regulated. I suspect such a sentiment is just a heuristic for allowing those who have the greatest interests in something having control over it, so people should usually be allowed to do unpopular things visibly, but in this case forced change may be a good thing.

Choosing the right amount of choice

The TED talk which I have seen praised most often is Barry Shwartz’s Paradox of Choice. His claim is that the ‘official dogma of all Western industrial societies’ – that more choice is good for us – is wrong. This has apparently been a welcome message for many.

Barry thinks the costs of choice are too high at current levels. His reasons are that it increases our expectations, makes us focus on opportunity costs rather than enjoying what we have, paralyzes us into putting off complicated or important choices, and makes us blame ourselves rather than the world when our selections fail to satisfy. We can choose how much choice to have usually though. You can always just pick a random jar of jam from the shelf if you find the decision making costly. So implicit in Barry’s complaint is that we continually misjudge these downsides and opt for more choice than we should.

Perhaps he is right currently, but I think probably wrong in the long term. Why should we fail to adapt? Even if we can’t adapt psychologically, as inability to deal with choices becomes more of a problem, more technologies for solving it will be found. Having the benefits of choice without the current costs doesn’t appear an insoluble problem.

One option for allowing more choice about choice, while keeping some benefits of variety is to have a standard default option available. Another that seems feasible is using a barcode scanner on a phone, connected to product information and an equation for finding the net goodness of products according to the owner’s values (e.g. goodness = -price – 1c per calorie – 1c per 10 miles travelled + 10c per good review – $100m for peanut traces + …). This could avoid a lot of time spent comparing product information on packages by instantly telling you which brand you likely prefer. Systems for telling you which music and films and people you are likely to like based on previous encounters are improving.

I suspect for many things we would prefer to make very resource intensive choices, because we want to make them ourselves. Where we want to have unique possessions that we identify with, each person needs to go through a similar process of finding out product information and assessing it. We don’t want to know once and for all which is most likely to be the best car for most people. Neither do we want to have randomized unique clothing. We usually want our visible possessions to reflect a choice. This isn’t a barrier to improving our choice making though. Any system that gave a buyer the best few options according to their apparent taste, for them to make the final decision, should probably keep the nice parts of choosing while avoiding time spent on disappointing options.

How much choice is good for us depends a lot on the person. Those far out on relevant bell curves will benefit more from access to more obscure options, while the most normal people will do better by going with the standard option without much thought. One level of choice will not suit all and nor will it have to. We will choose to keep and improve our choice of choices.