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The Effects of Some Policies Are Not So Obvious

April 3, 2010

In this week’s NYTimes Magazine Deborah Solomon interviews Rand Paul:

Q: But in light of your distrust of the federal government, where are you on an issue like seat belts? Federal legislation requiring people to wear seat belts could obviously save lives.
A: I think the federal government shouldn’t be involved. I don’t want to live in a nanny state where people are telling me where I can go and what I can do.

And I know what you’re thinking. My God, man!–You’re worked up over that? But this is a great example…the words that give the game away…the sorts of phrases the ministers at the State Department in Moscow were looking for daily as they scoured each newspaper from the West for a sign something was afoot—“could obviously save lives.” Yup, bingo, there it is!

We may excuse Ms. Solomon.  The experience required for a NYTimes gig doesn’t include a basic fluency in economics, only a nodding familiarity with dialectical materialism. So she hasn’t heard of Sam Peltzman, or even the more accessible Econ Talk, or the general idea of unintended consequences. But, Deborah, can I recommend something more at your speed? It’s episode seven from the ninth season of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Yeah, the one called Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda, where one character says to another:

“The safer they make the cars, the more risks the driver is willing to take. It’s called the Peltzman effect.”

See, TV could obviously be good for you!

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17 Comments
  1. Geoffrey Graham permalink
    April 5, 2010 2:59 am

    @ Tom
    You seem to be arguing that a major purpose of the State is to prevent premature death and reduce societal burden. If that’s correct, would you be in favor of outlawing skydiving and forcing people to change their diets? Compelling folks to dramatically reduce their sugar intake probably has more potential than the seat belt thing (and definitely more than the anti-skydiving mandate).

    For what it’s worth, I don’t believe I defined my “freedom concept”. I only chimed in to suggest that Paul’s position expressed a position on freedom that is neither aided nor hurt by what a study says about seat belt mandates. He elaborated a little later in the interview:

    “The question is, do you want to live in a nanny state where the government tells you what you can eat, where you can smoke, where you can live, what you can do, or would you rather have some freedom, and freedom means that things aren’t perfect?”

    His argument is that freedom isn’t perfect, and were it up to him, he would have a society where things like seat belt usage are not mandated, regardless of the implications. Franklin conveyed something similar, when he wrote, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

    Not to put words in Paul’s mouth, but I’m guessing he might add that, “in the long run”, freedom works better/saves more lives/heals more sick/nurtures more young/etc than the alternatives.

  2. Tom Human permalink
    April 5, 2010 2:10 am

    [I note that we’ve given up talking about the pedestrians who were killed as a result of seat-belt laws, since it appears that they don’t exist…?]

    @Geoffrey Graham:

    There are very few people who, if they kill themselves in a car, will not damage others. Heck, a common source of serious injuries in crashes is unseatbelted people being thrown and hitting others, but that’s not what I meant – it’s that when someone dies in a car accident, many people lose, society loses, and it certainly isn’t just the financial investment that society has in this (quite likely young) person.

    But I think we’re never going to agree. To you, the word “freedom” simply trumps every other value, no matter how it’s applied.

    In this case, you wish to give people a “freedom” that has no real discernable value and that will result in the deaths of a lot of people, probably young people who if they’d really understood the consequences of their actions would have made a different choice.

    I feel the same way about this that I feel about people killing other people for their religious beliefs – it’s irrational and I have no idea what you’re getting out of it.

    Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean I’m at all in favour of totalitarian or militaristic governments or centrally-planned economies – you and I certainly share a lot of values – but I simply fail to understand a lot of abstract things like flags, religions and various patriotic terms like “liberty” and “freedom”.

    In my world, there are three pillars, similar to Maslow’s: survival, fairness and “self-actualization” – and they need to be blended. Sometimes I make bad choices and my kids starve and your kids eat and that is fair; but just as often I will use my leverage to prevent you and a thousand of your brothers from getting your fair due and that is not fair, even if I have those means within my power. (And self-actualization is what you sometimes attain after you have the first two somewhat secured…)

    I feel your “freedom” concept is poorly defined. In my world, it fits somewhere in “fairness” except that your “freedom” idea seems to trump both “fairness” and “survival” and often results in losing transactions like “dead teenagers without seatbelts for freedom”.

    • April 5, 2010 8:36 am

      “I note that we’ve given up talking about the pedestrians who were killed as a result of seat-belt laws, since it appears that they don’t exist…?”

      No, they do exist and in significant numbers.

      It’s so well established that seat belts result in increased pedestrian deaths that I’m astonished you’d even try to deny it. It completely destroys any credibility that your argument may have.

  3. Geoffrey Graham permalink
    April 5, 2010 1:39 am

    @ Tom Human –
    You wrote: “By that same argument, compulsory vaccination is also wrong, because it kills some innocents. Your thoughts?”

    There’s a notable difference between the vaccination argument and the seat belt argument: the justification for mandatory seat belt usage is solely a “nanny” justification (you can’t be trusted to care for yourself), whereas the justifications for mandatory vaccinations also include a “risk to others” component — one’s failure to be vaccinated puts other people at risk.

  4. Tom Human permalink
    April 4, 2010 2:29 pm

    By that same argument, compulsory vaccination is also wrong, because it kills some innocents. Your thoughts?

    In fact, I just read Peltzman’s paper – and he presents no actual data that corroborates your argument. In fact, he writes: “A recent article by Alma Cohen and Liran Einav (2003) on the effects of mandatory seatbelt use laws is reasonably representative. This particular study does not find increased nonoccupant deaths to be an important part of the story.” [http://pcpe.libinst.cz/nppe/3_2/nppe3_2_3.pdf]

    His argument appears to be that even though seatbelt laws etc. do save lives, they don’t save as many lives as you’d predict. This is not the same argument you are presenting; nor are you presenting any actual data to back you up; in fact, this seminal paper on this concept appears to contradict your claims…

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      April 4, 2010 4:23 pm

      Tom, I’m aware of the literature. Here are some more recent papers claiming an increase in the number of lives saved.

      http://www.nber.org/papers/w13408

      Cohen and Einav too:

      http://www.stanford.edu/~leinav/pubs/RESTAT2003.pdf

      Admittedly, my post was a bit snarky, but my argument isn’t that the number of lives saved is fewer. My argument is that Deborah Solomon falsely believes the argument for the reg is clear cut and as she says, “obvious”. Now you must admit, that if we’re both reading NBER research papers and parsing their findings, then the answer is not so obvious, is it?

      • Tom Human permalink
        April 4, 2010 4:28 pm

        These papers also seem to agree with my claims…?!

        So if seatbelt legislation decreases fatalities amongst drivers, doesn’t increase fatalities amongst other people, and costs almost nothing, what possible reason could there be to argue against it?

  5. Tom Human permalink
    April 3, 2010 10:18 pm

    “those that believe a “nanny state” is worth the potential safety will always disagree with those that prefer a state that does not restrict one’s freedom to do whatever one wants — even if it is stupid.”

    Few people want a “nanny state” – but most adults do understand that some self-destructive behaviour does need to be regulated by the state because the costs are too great for society to bear.

    Take drugs, for example. I do believe that many drugs that are illegal today should be legal. But what about antibiotics? Should they be available without a prescription?

    And the answer is, no! Abuse of antibiotics leads to the evolution of drug-resistant germs which affects all of us negatively.

    Again, forcing people to wear seatbelts disproportionately saves the lives of the young and irresponsible – people that society has a great investment in, and that society hopes will prosper so that tomorrow’s society continues to flourish.

    Or look at what happened with the housing markets. Millions of people made dreadful decisions involving mortgages – at least partly because they were advised to do so by financial experts. A pure economic libertarian thinks the government shouldn’t be involved in such decisions… but the consequences of their bad decisions are affecting all of us. It would have been much better if the government had enforced the laws that require due diligence out of financial professionals.

  6. Geoff permalink
    April 3, 2010 9:44 pm

    @ Tom Human – There is a difference between traffic regulation (like stops signs), and mandates on personal behavior that are designed to make an individual “safer.”

    Regardless. Paul’s response should stand on it’s own, without regard to lives saved or cost. The larger question is, “Is it appropriate for the government to regulate individual behavior that does not harm others?” It might reduce deaths if the govt outlawed skydiving, but is that appropriate? Perhaps dietary mandates could reduce deaths, but are they appropriate? There is room for disagreement here: those that believe a “nanny state” is worth the potential safety will always disagree with those that prefer a state that does not restrict one’s freedom to do whatever one wants — even if it is stupid.

  7. Tom Human permalink
    April 3, 2010 7:44 pm

    “However, I highly suspect the accidents that do occur are more tradgic.”

    If you’re going to make a claim like, “Fewer accidents, fewer deaths, but more tragedy,” I think you really need to justify something so counter-intuitive.

    Let me ask you – have you ever been to countries with little or no traffic regulation? Say, in South America or Asia or Africa? Let me tell you that there are horrific, tragic accidents there all the time, accidents that would never happen in a place where the rule-of-law applied. (Search for the term “bus plunge” if you aren’t convinced).

  8. Cowmotholis Moochileany permalink
    April 3, 2010 7:33 pm

    The above is true, the Peltzman effect taken in to account, there are fewer accidents; that is established. However, I highly suspect the accidents that do occur are more tradgic. Using simple observation it appears people are Much more reckless how they drive. It makes for a world with a higher constant stress level, apathy, and disconnect for fellow man. Stress kills, and general psychosis aren’t accounted for in accident reports. There is an element of the Peltzman effect that I don’tt think he mentioned or saw. Eliminating responsibility from the equation obviously is a 100% win(safety, whatever) in many cases, but in other cases I changes how we relate to each other, and that isn’t trivial. We are always a hair width away from shapeshifting into a society equivlant to nazism. And don’t fool yourself, the stasi mentality of neighbors has always been alive and well.

    I’m torn on the seatbelt issue (wearing them is common sense), but I pretty sure the nanny-factor is set in stone as ultimately worse.

    Arguing the Pelztman effect, ironically, is negligable compared to arguing the Highway Patrol should spend more time ticketing agressive tailgaters, tailgater convoys, and speedy short sighted drivers.

  9. Tom Human permalink
    April 3, 2010 7:20 pm

    “If so, then by the same reasoning, it would be acceptable to kill a healthy person and harvest their organs, as the transplants would save several people, at the cost of just one life.”

    Um. This doesn’t seem particularly sane, does it, to compare being required to wear a seat belt to having your organs involuntary harvested when you are alive?

    I want to drive, but I don’t want the hassle of getting a driver’s license – why doesn’t your argument apply to me? The only reason preventing me from being on the road is that I might kill other people – but by that same reasoning, my organs should be harvested and given to people who can afford them. Right?

    You didn’t actually deal with the previous poster’s argument, either – which seems to show that seatbelt laws and speed limits OVERALL save lives.

    Adults understand that things driver’s licenses, speed limits, seat belt legislation, food and safety inspections, all of these are necessary because on the balance, they make everyone’s lives much better, and diminish us only slightly.

    • April 4, 2010 10:02 am

      “Um. This doesn’t seem particularly sane, does it, to compare being required to wear a seat belt to having your organs involuntary harvested when you are alive?”

      Yes, it is, because they are both based on the same principle – knowingly costing one group of people their lives (pedestrians, etc. in one of the scenarios, the people who have their organs taken in the other), on the basis that it will save a greater number of people in another group (drivers/the people receiving the organs).

      “I want to drive, but I don’t want the hassle of getting a driver’s license – why doesn’t your argument apply to me? The only reason preventing me from being on the road is that I might kill other people”

      Which shows why it is materially different to requiring the wearing of seat belts. One is designed to prevent people being harmed by the actions of others, the other is designed to prevent people being harmed by their own actions.

      Plus, as a result of the Peltzman effect, seat belt legislation achieves the opposite of what driver testing is designed to achieve, as it results in people being more likely to be killed by the actions of others.

      “You didn’t actually deal with the previous poster’s argument, either – which seems to show that seatbelt laws and speed limits OVERALL save lives.”

      I addressed it by saying that it doesn’t justify mandatory seat belts. That was the purpose of the organ harvesting example; that too would overall save lives, but it doesn’t automatically make it a justifiable course of action.

      “Adults understand that things driver’s licenses, speed limits, seat belt legislation, food and safety inspections, all of these are necessary because on the balance, they make everyone’s lives much better, and diminish us only slightly.”

      Where compulsory seat belt wearing is concerned, that is demonstrably not true. If you are a pedestrian who is killed as a result of a driver driving more riskily because he has been made to wear a seat belt, your life isn’t made better and you are diminished much more than just slightly.

  10. Akerman permalink
    April 3, 2010 6:03 pm

    Not so fast Mike…

    You can leave Peltzman out of here. There are several case studies (in dozens of countries) that have confirmed that seat belt legislation safes lives. Even with the Pelzman effect there are less fatalities.

    • April 3, 2010 6:37 pm

      Even if that were true, it would happen by causing an increase in the deaths of pedestrians, cyclists, etc., but saving the lives of a greater number of drivers. The question then becomes, is it legitimate to force people to follow a particular course of action which will result in the deaths of some, so long as it prevents the deaths of a greater number.

      If so, then by the same reasoning, it would be acceptable to kill a healthy person and harvest their organs, as the transplants would save several people, at the cost of just one life.

      I don’t believe anybody has the right to play god in that way.

      • April 5, 2010 2:29 am

        “If so, then by the same reasoning, it would be acceptable to kill a healthy person and harvest their organs, as the transplants would save several people, at the cost of just one life.”

        Only stupid utilitarians make this argument. Quite obviously, a policy of organ harvesting would disincentivize healthy behavior to a great degree.

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