Vice Squad
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Regulating Vice: Chapter 3 (part 2), "The Robustness Principle"

Recall that surprise bestseller Regulating Vice calls for the robustness principle to govern vice policy. Policies are robust if they work pretty well independently of the extent to which vice participants are rational. That is, the policies should be serviceable if everyone is completely rational in their vice-related choices, and they should work pretty well even if lots of folks are wacky. From Chapter 3 (footnote omitted):

The main rationale for the robustness principle lies in ignorance. We can’t easily judge when a habit becomes an addiction or when rational consumption involves dynamic inconsistency or shades into compulsion. Therefore we want to avoid a regulatory regime that only makes sense if there is no such thing as vice rationality, or an alternative regime that only works well if everyone makes considered, sober judgments about his or her vice participation. What we tend to end up with when we avoid these extremes is vice controls that offer some assistance to those who are misinformed or struggling with self-control issues, as long as those controls do not impinge significantly upon those who are rationally vicious. In the realm of adult self-regarding vice, robust public policies can inform, entreat, and induce – but not compel.
Robustness is a sort of insurance against our own propensity to error. Policies that harshly punish private vice participation -- which in many manifestations has no obvious externalities -- would be inconsistent with robustness. But so might an unregulated market for highly addictive goods, because such a market would bring significant costs if myriad folks are addicted or diseased with respect to their consumption of the good.

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