Monday, June 25, 2007

Danny, we hardly knew ye: Drezner Really *IS* a Moral Midget

Good lord! Dan Drezner, who pretends to have libertarian sensibilities, actually thinks that a system of fines for unpredictable, unintentional accidents will make the world a better place. He took a test; I give him an "F"!

(If you want to take the Moral Sense Test, do it now. Spoilers below)

Now, check this, from Dan:

I came across this Moral Sense test at Harvard.

It's an eight question test in which an action is described and then you are asked to award damages.

In the scenarios I was given, I awarded an average of $129 in fines. The average response of all test takers was approximately $72,000.

So, clearly, I'm a heartless bastard. [And you also like to make fun of short people!!--ed.] Or, I'm more willing to blame fortuna than people when bad but (largely) accidental things happen.

Dan! DAN! Walk away from those totalitarians at Tufts, and try to come towards the sound of my voice! THE PREMISE OF THE TEST IS THAT GOVERNMENT SHOULD FINE PEOPLE FOR ACCIDENTS, AND TAKE THE MONEY AT GUN POINT FOR USE IN THE GENERAL FUND!

These are TORTS, not criminal offenses. It is important that the victims do not receive the payment. An average of $129? GOTT IN HIMMEL! I had an "average payment of $0.00! I thought that several of the scenarios (like the peanuts in the allergist's office) were clear negligence, and that there was a cause of action for a law suit. Any allergy sufferer knows, or should know, that peanuts can be deadly, and in an allergist's office one expects to encounter people with.....ALLERGIES!

But not a fine! Why put government in charge of collecting fines when one private person harms another accidentally? You are in favor of criminalizing private mistakes, when there is a private remedy. There is no deterrent effect here, and no pretense of making the damaged party whole.

Danny, Danno, Danton....I thought you were one of us.



Angus said...

Mungowitz!! preach it. I took that quiz yesterday, gave out $0.00 and then subjected Robin to a rant about the bogosity of it all. Labeling that exercise as a "moral sense test" is about as accurate as calling our stay in Iraq "nation building".

Dirty Davey said...

As a big-state Liberal, I gave out two $500 fines--both in cases in which the person was engaged in commercial activity (construction worker rolling barrels down a ramp and dentist drilling into a nerve) and one could make a solid case that the person had an obligation to know better (even though the test cases said they didn't know).

Now there were also a handful of cases in which--had the fine gone to the victim rather than to the state--I could have seen a case to be made for compensation to the victim, and for some state role in forcing that compensation. But in general the cases I saw were nothing that would justify a government fine.

Mungowitz said...

dirty davey has a point, I'll admit.

I could imagine a case for fines, announced in advance, as deterrents for carelessness in commercial settings.

Since these were ex post judgments, I ignored that possibility. But if the decisions were announced, and other people could later hear/read about them, and perhaps adjust future behavior, then maybe so.

Still, I think that the private tort system is better able to handle this problem. One could object that much of the payment would go to a lawyer, and that may be true. But SOME would go to the victim, and we would not have the moral hazard problem of government announcing fines on behavior as a way of raising revenue, or punishing actions it doesn't like.

Like many libertarians, I may depend too much on private court action. Let's put that aside: what is the point of government fines, ex post, for unintentional behavior? If Dirty Davey only gave an average fine of $125 for the eight scenarios, then the folks who are awarding tens of thousands are just not thinking clearly.

Mungowitz said...

And, Jesus-on-a-stick: Angus, there are monkeys on your back. Did you know that?

Jacob T. Levy said...

Yep, zero is the right answer every time. I argued about the dentist case with Dan. He said that the dentist was showing a lack of skill in a licensed profession, and that knowing there were such fines for such mistakes would encourage dentists to exercise as much caution as possible in circumstances where the patients can't monitor their effort and skill. That's a recognizable strict liability argument; one might sometimes punish innocent accidents in order to be sure to catch all the preventable ones, and in order to elicit maximum reasonable effort to prevent them. But I think the case of dentists' level of skill and effort can be taken care of in ex ante pricing, and indeed is. (There are HUGE differentials in how much different dentists get paid.)

Jacob T. Levy said...

Hmm. But I'm not sure I share Mike's reasoning. If I thought that any of the offenses were negligent torts, then I'd say: the fine is half of the morally-desired outcome, compensation being the other half. A suit in tort can succeed in getting both halves accomplished. But that doesn't mean that a system of fines is a moral wrong, just that it's morally incomplete. And given the unpredictability of the tort system, predictable fines might accomplish the deterring-negligence advantage better than the private suits were.

If I've committed a tort, I've forfeited a property right (in principle, in the amount of the harm done). The state doesn't do me a wrong in extracting the fine, though it might well do a wrong to the victim if it doesn't turn around and compensate.

Angus said...

Mungowitz: yes there are monkeys all over me. it was in the Djema el Fna in Marrakech. One of the best days ever!!!

Mungowitz said...

Jacob: Again, I may be reading in too much.

But I don't trust the state to define cases of violation, b/c it will use such "violations" as a way of (a) imposing entry barriers, and (b) raising revenues.

I think it is fundamentally different for a court to define a tort offense ex post, and for the state to define them ex ante, in such broad and vague language that people do not enter professions.

Tom said...

I fined the construction worker $600 and the dentist $50 -- both on the "due deligence" theme. Others could civil actions, but not the peanut lady. In that case, the doctor is liable for failing to post a big NO PEANUTS sign. Lay people are not expected to know that others can be violently allergic to common foods that they're not even eating!

Anonymous said...

Munger is right. These are torts. And for Drezner's information, the tort system works damn friggin' well, well it has.

Anonymous said...

I did wind up putting $0 for every single question. In many of the cases, I would have wanted to know the dollar value of these injuries (medical expenses & missed work maybe), but that only matters if the victim was getting the money. Since they weren't, what kind of moral justice was supposed to happen exactly?