Vice Squad
Saturday, April 05, 2008
Regulating Vice: Chapter 3, "The Robustness Principle"

Enough time has elapsed since the, er, five-part summary of Chapter 2, for Vice Squad to move on to summarizing Chapter 3 in surprise bestseller Regulating Vice. Recall that we started by looking at John Stuart Mill's harm principle. Then we explored addiction, to see if there is any reason to alter the harm principle because of the addictiveness and self-control problems (or just plain shortfalls from rationality) associated with many vices. Chapter 3, "The Robustness Principle," argues that yes, Mill's approach -- which would rule out policies that have as their motivation the reduction of adult vice -- should be replaced by that pesky Robustness Principle, long foisted on the loyal Vice Squad reader. From Chapter 3:

Some adult vice-related consumption is harmful and (arguably) less than rational; further, we cannot easily distinguish rational from irrational choice with respect to vice. This leads us to the robustness principle.... Public policy towards potentially addictive activities should be robust with respect to departures from full rationality. Vice policy for adults should hold up pretty well if everyone is always well-informed and fully rational, and it should work well, too, even if some or many vice-related choices are irrational. We require this robustness precisely because we cannot ascertain how much vice is rational, nor distinguish the rational component from that which flows from a degradation of the reflecting faculties.

A robust vice policy will provide some support for those who are uninformed or struggling with self-control in their decision making. The provision of such support should not impose substantial costs upon those whose vice-related decisions are marked by rationality. One example of a policy that satisfies the robustness principle is a requirement for purchases of heroin, say, to be made with at least three days’ notice – where the notice would be revocable by the adult would-be purchaser at any time during the ensuing waiting period. Rational heroin consumers, and even rational addicts, can then assure themselves of a steady supply, but those struggling with self-control issues will not be able to immediately satisfy an unforeseen craving and can cancel an impulsive order when their decision-making faculties are controlled by their more considered selves.
I suspect some more Vice Squad discussion of the Robustness Principle in the days (weeks? decades?) ahead. [Update: Here's the brief follow-up post.]

For those keeping score at home, here's the Regulating Vice Posts Roundup:
(1) Announcement
(2) Introduction (part I)
(3) Introduction (part II)
(4) Introduction (part III)
(5) Erratum, Page 2!!
(6) Chapter 1, The Harm Principle (part I)
(7) Chapter 1, The Harm Principle (part II)
(8) GMU Talk (part I)
(9) GMU Talk (part II)
(10) Chapter 2, Addiction (part I)
(11) Chapter 2, Addiction (part II)
(12) Chapter 2, Addiction (part III)
(13) Chapter 2, Addiction (part IV)
(14) Chapter 2, Addiction (part V)

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