Vice Squad
Thursday, December 06, 2007
Regulating Vice: Chapter 2, "Addiction: Rational and Otherwise"

Chapter 2 of Regulating Vice starts by describing addiction, while noting the myriad definitions of addiction and dependence that previously have been offered. (In The Addiction Concept, Glenn D. Walters writes: "After reviewing the addiction literature, one might be inclined to conclude that there are as many definitions of addiction as there are investigators conducting research in the area.") Reinforcement, tolerance, and withdrawal are generally part of the mix, but not all vicious compulsions that people would likely term "addiction" demonstrate all three of these traits. Nevertheless, the chapter moves ahead with a description of rational addiction theory, as developed by two University of Chicago economists, Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy:
A capsule summary of rational addiction theory begins with the description of a potentially addictive good (a drug, say) as having the quality that the consumer’s current satisfaction from the drug depends on the extent of previous drug consumption. Other factors such as price will also influence current drug use, but the amount of past consumption plays a key role in generating today’s demand for the drug. In keeping with the notion that addiction involves reinforcement, the more you have consumed in the past, the more that you will choose to consume now, holding all other factors constant.

What separates rational addiction theory from most other approaches is that the basic description just provided is understood by the consumer as well as by the armchair addiction theorist. So when you make a choice to consume an addictive drug today, you recognize that today’s consumption will increase your desire for the drug tomorrow.
Rational addiction theory, it turns out, provides a solid underpinning for much addiction-related behavior, and also gains support from empirical tests when it is compared to addiction models where consumers lack foresight. One type of behavior that rational addiction cannot easily explain, however, is the costs that some people impose on themselves to try to commit to reduced future consumption. [Stomach reduction surgeries are one example.] In its pure form, rational addiction theory suggests that public policies that try to make drugs (or whatever) harder to obtain cannot make anyone, even addicts, better off (at least directly); private policies adopted towards the same end also would not make sense -- and yet such private policies are commonly undertaken.

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