Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Please Don’t Ask Me, I Might Say Yes

Tyler Cowen raises an interesting question vis-à-vis the national Do Not Call list, inadvertently making me realize that the Do Not Call issue is actually related to my current research.

Tyler observes that some people who register on the DNC list might be protecting themselves from, well, themselves. They are afraid that if telemarketers call them, they might actually be tempted to buy stuff they don’t really need. Like Ulysses, they tie themselves to the mast to restrain their future, more impulsive, selves.

As it happens, my primary research project at the moment is economic models of internal conflict – specifically, meta-preferences and multiple selves. Tyler’s own research on the topic has been useful to me in forming my perspective on the matter. And he repeats his most significant point in his post on telemarketers: “Why should we assume that the rational controlling self is the only one who counts (do you really want a life devoid of spontaneity?)? Why should our government be in the business of altering this balance in one direction or the other?” In other words, if we really do have multiple selves with conflicting interests, there is no particular reason to have institutions that favor one self over another.

Tyler suggests that these considerations might force libertarians who support the DNC list to support a variety of non-libertarian policies: “How many of you out there will be consistent? How about a government list for people who do not want to be allowed into casinos? Do not want to be allowed to buy cigarettes at the local 7-11? Do not want to be allowed to order dessert?” In short, are we willing to embrace a variety policies designed to protect people, not from each other, but from themselves?

But this argument only works *if* protecting people against themselves was the justification for the DNC list. That is not, in fact, the justification that libertarians (like Julian and me) offered in defense of the list. The main argument was that the DNC list is functionally equivalent to a “no trespassing” or “no soliciting” sign on one’s front lawn, and thus a simple application of property rights. Now, it’s certainly possible that I put a “no trespassing” sign on my lawn because I fear that Jehovah’s Witnesses might actually be successful in converting me, and therefore my rational self has chosen to constrain my spiritual self. But privileging rational selves over spiritual selves is not the usual justification offered in favor of protecting property rights in land. It just happens that some property owners might use it for that purpose.

And notice that a pure defense-of-property-rights position would not obligate libertarians supporters of the DNC list to support any of the other policies that Tyler cites. In the case of the DNC list, others are prohibited from entering my property. In the case of a no-casino-entry list, others are prohibited from letting me enter their property, even if they want me to and I (apparently) want to.

Admittedly, the discussion gets a bit dicier if we delve into the reasons why we support private property rights in the first place. Consequentialist libertarians like me will often justify private property on grounds that it minimizes externality problems by concentrating the costs and benefits of resource use on an individual. The problem is that if we regard an individual as having multiple selves, then the actions of one self may create externalities (or as some analysts call them, “internalities”) on the other selves. The question, then, is what kind of property rights structure -- if any -- would best allow the multiple selves to cooperate for greatest mutual gain, and whether government policies can or should be evaluated on the basis of how they affect that structure. That’s one of the tricky questions I’m grappling with now, and I don’t have a good answer yet. (At this point, I might still come down on the side of “multiple selves” being a pointless concept, albeit a decent premise for a sit-com -- remember “Herman’s Head”?)

But even if multiple selves are real, and even if government policies do affect the balance of power among them, it doesn’t follow that the DNC list is undesirable (or unlibertarian). In the status quo ante, a person’s multiple selves existed within a de facto property rights regime. A change in policy made on other grounds arguably changes that regime. But if Tyler’s right that there’s no particular reason to favor the long-run self over the impulsive self, it’s also true that there’s no reason to do the reverse, either. And in that case, the multiple selves issue provides us with no grounds to prefer either the status quo ante or the new policy, and thus we focus on the other pros and cons of the policy.

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