Friday, April 20, 2012

Op Ed in La Tercera

Here is a link to my article today in La Tercera. It's in Spanish, but then of course it would be. The English version (a bit longer, because when JP and I translated it we also had to shorten it by about 30%):

If Treated Like Adults, People Act Like Adults
Michael Munger, Department of Economics, and Political Science
Duke University

In the movie "Minority Report," a government agency becomes convinced it can see the future. Using telepathically gifted super-humans, the state tracks down "criminals" who have done nothing wrong.

On March 9, the Chilean government implemented a "zero tolerance" policy on alcohol consumption for drivers. This policy throws a shadow of dread into every restaurant meal, private party, or after-work party. But most of those who will be afraid, and even many of those who will be arrested, will have done nothing wrong.

Why does the government believe it can see crimes before they happen? To be sure, drinking too much and driving is a terribly irresponsible act, because of slowed reaction times and dramatically increased accident risks, both for the driver and everyone in his path.

The problem is that there are two very different approaches to regulation. Ex ante rules guess at future harms, while ex post rules punish actual harms, real crimes.
Ex ante rules are for children. We require that they come straight home after school, that they not drive, that they not drink, that they go to bed on time. We don't let children handle expensive china in shops. Ex ante rules prevent harms that might occur, even if we are not sure what those harms might be.
But rules made for children infantilize adults. We punish adults when they actually do something wrong. Adults have no curfew, are able to drive cars, and are responsible for getting themselves to work on time. Adults are allowed to pick up expensive china in shops.
 Of course, if you drop the china and it breaks, you must pay for it. Knowing this in advance is sufficient to cause an adult to behave responsibly. In fact, that's what "responsibility" means: acting carefully, avoiding risky actions, and take responsibility if you are careless. If the state treats us like children, we act like children. But being treated like an adult makes you act like an adult, because you have achieved a position of trust in society.
The zero tolerance law infantilizes adults. Instead of being responsible for making their own choices, Chile has impose an ex ante restriction on all drinking. The problem is that each person is different, and we all know it. There is no inherent problem, or harm, caused by driving after having consumed a small amount of alcohol. The problem is impairment: you should not drive if you are impaired, because you place yourself and others at risk of injury or death.
Impairment could be caused by lack of sleep, by a strong decongestant, or by an amount of alcohol larger than that person can tolerate. This amount of alcohol differs sharply by person, and no government agent can use telepathic abilities to predict what that limit might be.

The zero tolerance law punishes a guess of a risk of harm, at an absurdly low threshold. Any adult whose driving is actually impaired by .3 grams of alcohol per liter of blood (less than 1 drink, for most people) will likely never drink and drive. Most of us are not impaired in any measurable way by any amount of alcohol less than two drinks, or perhaps even three, in the course of a two hour dinner or party.
 Proponents of zero tolerance object that the rate of drunk driving should be reduced as much as possible. There are two problems with that argument. The first is that the ability to make choices, as an adult, to enjoy a cocktail, a beer, or some wine in a social setting has a value, also. The idea that we can, or should, eliminate all risks in a modern society is a childish fantasy, the sort of thing parents impose on infants.
The second problem is that this "Minority Report" approach gets it wrong. Most serious drunk driving accidents are the result of repeat offenders, not a lawyer who had 2 glasses of white wine at a gathering after work. Zero tolerance is a theatrical event, not a real safety measure. Politicians and police are making a show of how much they care about our welfare, and protecting us from ourselves.
All they are really doing is acting like nannies. Treated as adults, people are capable of acting like adults. Zero tolerance is a bad policy, and should be repealed.

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