Vice Squad
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
Regulating Vice at George Mason

Thanks to Pete Boettke, I was able to give a talk (or participate in a discussion, rather -- the majority of my talk outline was skipped entirely) at George Mason University today, in the Philosophy, Politics and Economics workshop. My negligible sleep Monday night was poorly compensated for by lots of caffeine, but I managed to learn a lot and to enjoy the experience (which might make me unique among today's workshop participants). I'd say the most recurrent issue with my general approach to vice was a concern that my embrace of regulations might lead to all sorts of matters being declared to be vices, whereupon government would generate tons of new, counterproductive controls. [I am tempted to make a bad historical pun by saying that George Mason was constitutionally opposed to my approach to vice.]

My general response to the potential overinclusiveness of the definition of vice was along the lines of, "Maybe, but the robustness principle ensures that the costs of taking the notion of vice too far will not be very high. Further, even without the robustness principle, your favorite activity could be declared to be a vice, and then it might even be banned." (Ask the folks who enjoy alcohol inhalers, or marijuana.) [I should mention, though, that one friend in the audience reported that after an hour and a half, he still didn't really understand this robustness principle, so I must have been pretty incoherent -- maybe I shouldn't have skipped most of the outline?]

There was more at GMU, of course, and perhaps I will blog again as I process it. But one point that I find interesting is how different audiences respond in such varied ways to the robustness principle. Non-academics (or perhaps non-economists) focus on the fact that I would allow legal (though regulated) markets for heroin and adult prostitution; economists typically don't bat an eye at the legal heroin, but are concerned that my approach might be used to tax fatty or sugary foods. There's something to be said for perturbing everyone, no?

George Mason, of course, is (among other things) ground zero for econoblogs, and Pete's workshop has a very nice vibe.

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