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Evil Choices
Bar Harbor
I have many libertarian friends, and have, at times, described myself as a "small-l libertarian". All else being equal, I'd like to keep government small and simple. Of course, all else is *not* equal in anything other than theory-land.

I have heard many of these friends in conversation with other, non-libertarian friends on the subject of things like minimum wage laws and abusive workplaces. A frequent line taken by the libertarian side is that providing people choices is always good; while 'bad' jobs may be unsafe or pay poorly, they are demonstrably better than the available alternatives, which is why people take them, and are thus a net good.

Something about that argument has long struck me as mistaken, and I think I now have a handle on an important piece of it. I think that "providing people more choices is always good" is actually mistaken. It is *usually* good, and makes a good rule of thumb, but I don't think it stands as a universal principle. And the ways in which it fails are, I think, instructive.

My first example of this is (I think) a morally neutral one. Some years back, I came up with a meta-strategy for how to optimize my chances when playing any competitive game that I wasn't yet skilled at. If I can't see any other way to differentiate between two options I have, pick the one which gives my *opponent* the most possible choices on his next move. If I *force* his next move, then, being forced, it must be the best possible move. But if my opponent has *many* choices, then some will be better than the others, and he may choose badly. Hence, I, personally, have long experience with "providing people more choices" being an *aggressive* act, not a helpful one. This is one of the traditional ways in which economic arguments fail: the presumption that humans are rational actors. In fact, people often make sub-optimal choices, and clever/evil people will exploit that.

Consider a fictional trope I've seen used in a few different places: Hero gains power over evil child-murdering Villain; Hero handcuffs Villain to something metal, hands him a hacksaw, sets the building on fire; Hero informs Villain that he doesn't have time to saw through the metal, but *does* have time to saw through his own arm, then walks away. This setup does interestingly complex things to the moral structure of the story. The Hero can say, "I didn't kill him; I left him in a situation he could have escaped from. Likewise, I didn't torture and maim him. Whatever happened to him, he *chose* to happen." Moral culpability is shifted from the Hero onto the Villain, because the Villain "had a choice". This is never actually stated out loud, because if it was, people might notice the obvious moral failings of such a stance. The situation the Villain is in is entirely of the Hero's arranging; there would otherwise be no threat of death *or* torture. So (I think) regardless of which "choice" the Villain makes, the Hero remains culpable for the outcome. But the Hero (and the audience) rarely seem to do that level of analysis, remaining happy with the simplistic surface absolvement of the Hero's responsibility. [See also the recent XKCD, where he states: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserved it."]

This trope has been extended in popular culture through the "Saw" films and "The Dark Knight" (among others), featuring stories where characters are deliberately put into agonizing "choice" situations, which they can allegedly survive only by doing something physically or morally traumatizing. It is parodied neatly in "Cabin in the Woods", where the protagonists are placed in a position where they must "choose" their "punishment" (not even aware that they are doing so), overlooking the fact that they were heavily manipulated into their "sins" by the manipulator/voyeurs in the first place.

These examples are all fictional, and exaggerated, but I think the basic principle applies to at least some real-world situations. A sweatshop owner/manager may not have *created* the crushing poverty that makes his dangerous and ill-paid employment seem like a step up for the locals -- but he is still responsible for the poor conditions of the employment that he creates. Though, as with both characters and audiences above, he is usually able to *tell* himself that he bears no such responsibility, so long as he doesn't examine it too closely.

For that matter, it is not necessary for the businessman's success that he *actually* provide life-improvement for the potential employees, only that they *believe* that it will do so. Given the power and information imbalances involved, propaganda will often be cheaper than actual improvements. [See also the recent XKCD: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserved it."] A business driven purely by profit motive (and as short-sighted as most are these days) will naturally pay as little as they can get away with and spend as little as possible on infrastructure.

So, yes, I support minimum wage and workplace safety laws.

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That's an excellent analysis. Thanks.

I've heard it expressed as "Don't control the choice; control the choices."

Hadn't thought about it as a meta-strategy, though--that's insightful.

It also highlights the difference between pretend-freedom and actual-freedom; in the latter, you can alter the rules and playing field to better suit you. (Edit: Or, opt not to play at all.)

Have you read "Finite and Infinite Games"?

Edited at 2013-06-01 08:07 pm (UTC)

Have you read "Finite and Infinite Games"?

It rings a strong bell. [googles...] If I have read it it was long enough ago that most of my conscious memory is gone. Alternately, I may have simply read other books that referenced it. Do you recommend it?

I do. It's a short read, and you've probably had or encountered many of its thoughts before, but it's a useful tying together of a lot of stuff.

But if my opponent has *many* choices, then some will be better than he others, and he may choose badly. Hence, I, personally, have long experience with "providing people more choices" being an *aggressive* act, not a helpful one.

This is brilliant, and fits in fascinatingly with some of my own thinking lately about some large-scale social phenomena arising out of ostensible free choices. We as a society like to think of individual's outcomes being determined by the quality of their choices as a morally virtuous thing. But by having a society organized like that, it pretty much definitionally means that people with impaired ability to choose -- whether because of congenital disability, because of acquired disability, because of deprivation of education or lack of equal information about the "market place" of choices, because of coercive parties preventing free exercise of choice, or any other reason -- wind up in an underclass, through no fault of their own.

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