Vice Squad
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Regulating Vice: The Introduction (part I)

Regulating Vice starts off by trying to impress upon the reader (note the singular) that vice policy has traditionally been highly unstable, and that on these grounds alone there is reason to believe that current policies will prove similarly ephemeral. (An early Vice Squad post offers a parallel discussion, not coincidentally.) The next step is to delimit the subject matter: what constitutes a vice? (An axiomatic-style definition is not sought.) Excess and habit are part of the standard equation, as is the idea that the behavior in question does not have (at least in some private manifestations) direct effects upon non-participants -- in econ-speak, 'no externalities', or in Mill-speak, 'self-regarding'. And then there is the conflation of wickedness (or immorality) and pleasure, which separates gambling, for instance, from exercise, though both gambling and exercise can be habitual, excessive, and self-regarding. [The very end of Regulating Vice returns to the question of what is a vice.]
...´╗┐taking perceptions of immorality as given, a traditional vice exhibits excess, is habitual, and produces direct consequences that fall nearly in their entirety on the person engaging in it. These common traits imply that approaches to regulating vices as disparate as gambling and injecting heroin involve a shared set of principles. Within the class of illicit drugs alone there are vast and important variations that influence the appropriateness of alternative regulatory structures; nevertheless, it makes sense to discuss public policy toward alcohol, gambling, prostitution, and so on, within a common framework [pp. 5-6].
The framework that is then proposed is one that is primarily economic and legal, one that takes into account (at least implicitly) the pleasures that some people find in vice. The standard three and one-third vice concerns (familiar to the loyal Vice Squad reader) of kids, addicts, externalities, and internalities are then introduced. This gets us to page 12; more tomorrow, I hope.

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