Cleverness And The Common Good
Steve Sailer points to this quite good David Frum column. In it, Frum comes out against marijuana legalization, but not so much from a moralistic point of view (“Drugs are evil”) but from a position of practical paternalism. That is, while some people seem to be able to handle marijuana use, it can be really harmful to others, and the harm can be quite significant. Frum generalizes:
When we write social rules, we always need to consider: Who are we writing rules for? Some people can cope with complexity. Others need clarity. Some people will snap back from an early mistake. Others will never recover.
Over the past three decades, and in area after area of social life, Americans have replaced simple rules that anybody can follow with complex rules that baffle large numbers of people.
Consider, for example, the home mortgage. Once the mortgage was a very simple product. Put 20% down, then sign up for a fixed schedule of payments over the next 30 years. In the space of a single generation, these 30-year fixed-rate amortizing mortgages turned what had been a nation of renters into a nation of homeowners.The goal of public policy should be to protect … the vulnerable from making life-wrecking mistakes in the first place.
For more sophisticated buyers, however, the standard mortgage was a big nuisance. For them, bankers developed more flexible products: no money down, no documentation, interest-only, adjustable rate. These products met genuine needs. But as they diffused down-market, they became traps for people who did not understand the risks they were accepting.
This is an important point. I’m a fairly smart guy, but there are certain things I have to deal with — figuring out how to invest for retirement, for example — that I simply do not understand. I basically throw my hands up and ask someone whose judgment I trust, “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” I don’t actually want more freedom in those particular areas, because freedom is, for me, mostly the opportunity to screw up. In these areas, I want things to be as uncomplicated as possible because I know how little I know.
This is why I hate hate hate to bargain for anything. You ever read that amazing 2001 story on Edmunds.com, “Confessions Of A Car Salesman”? It was written by a reporter who went undercover as a car salesman in two dealerships, to learn what it was like. Look at this excerpt:
During the first week as a car salesman I used to come home and describe the scene at the dealership to my wife. I told her how we were instructed to follow cars as they pulled onto the lot and stand beside the car until the customer stepped out. She was incredulous.
“Do they think that’s going to make people want to buy a car?” she always asked. “If it was me I’d just keep driving. I’d want time to pick the car myself. To relax and sit in the car and not be pressured.” I could only answer that the system was not set up for educated people who thought for themselves, it wasn’t to help customers make informed decisions. The system was designed to catch people off guard, to score a quick sale, to exploit people who were weak or uninformed. Those were our buyers.
My manager had, at one point, described the different races and nationalities and what they were like as customers. It would be too inflammatory to repeat what he said here. But the gist of it was that the people of such-and-such nationality were “lie downs” (people who buy without negotiating), while the people of another race were “roaches” (they had bad credit), and people from that country were “mooches” (they tried to buy the car for invoice price).
I’ll repeat what Michael, my ASM, told me about Caucasians . He said white people never come into the dealership. “They’re all on the Internet trying to find out what our invoice price is. We never even get a shot at them. I hate it. I mean, would they go (to a mall) and say, ‘What’s your invoice price on that beautiful suit?’ No. So why are they doing it here?”
As long as I can remember, I’ve used the Internet or other resources to find the invoice price of cars, and to negotiate deals in which I pay what I consider to be a fair price over invoice. I hate buying cars. Hate it. But I have learned how to do it to make information work for me. I’m clever that way. It’s not because the color of my skin makes me smarter, but because I have enough sense to be wary (that is, I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know), and to use what tools I have to keep from being ripped off. And this is something that was taught to me by my culture.
In 1943, Vice President Henry Wallace published a book celebrating the coming “century of the common man.” That century did not last very long. We have transitioned instead into the era of the clever man and clever woman. We have revised our institutions, our programs, our rules in ways that offer profitable new chances to those with cultural know-how — and that inflict disastrous consequences on those who are overwhelmed by a world of ever-more-abundant and ever-more-risky choices.
It seems to me that clever people who know how to negotiate a world of risky choices successfully tend to be libertarians who wish to maximize choice. They trust in their own ability to make the right choice. And they also trust in their ability, or their means, to absorb the consequences of a negative choice. I find that libertarians often fail to appreciate that there are many, many people in the world who aren’t clever, who don’t bring the same skill and temperament set to negotiating risky choices, and who have far less resilience if their choices result in failure.
Traditional social rules of sex, marriage, and childbearing may strike sophisticated libertarian-oriented people as an onerous burden, or at least the sort of thing that ought not be taken terribly seriously. Less clever people, though, may have far less skill at handling sexual relationships in the absence of strong social norms — with much more serious consequences. In my experience, libertarians are far more interested in people’s capabilities than they are in people’s frailties. This is a blind spot, I think.
The common good may require limits on the freedoms of its most intelligent and capable members. The stupid ought to be able to count on a certain level of protection from the sophisticated. I say this as someone who is really smart in certain areas, but quite stupid in others. As I’ve written before, a real estate agent who was selling houses like hotcakes at the height of the bubble told me that people who had no business buying houses were taking on 30-year mortgages for $400,000 homes. They not only could be talked into buying far, far more home than they could afford, they often would not consider anything less than a big, expensive house. This was their shot at the American dream, as they saw it. This real estate agent had a bad conscience about selling houses to people she was sure would default on them (“Some of these home buyers are one paycheck away from not being able to make their note,” she said), but what was she supposed to do? This is what the customers demanded, and the banks were ready to lend them the money. These customers could not hear what this scrupulous real estate agent told them about the dangers of this kind of risk. In a previous era, bankers would not have allowed borrowers like this to take on that kind of risk — would have, in other words, protected them from themselves.
We know how all that turned out, not only for hundreds of thousands of homebuyers, but also for the national economy. We Americans love to think idealistically about the virtues of expanding freedom, but we are poor at thinking about what happens to people who can’t handle freedom. Every parent understands that older kids can be afforded a degree of freedom that younger kids cannot, and that younger kids need a firm, “No, you can’t do that, because I said so” Frum’s point is that while we ought to reduce the criminal penalties for marijuana possession and use, decriminalization goes too far because of the added burden it would place people who are most vulnerable to the deleterious aspects of the drug. He has a good point, and not just about drug laws.