The Dangers of Labeling

I was going to write a post on this today, but coincidentally, Wired’s piece on 100 Things Your Kids May Never Know About has “Toys actually being suitable for the under-3s” as one of those things.   The United States of America faces a dystopian future where no child under 3 will have a toy he or she can play with.

I got a taste of this future back in November, at a Toys R Us outlet in New York. I was searching for something to buy for my then 2 month old son to show people what we got from phoren. Sadly, the only thing that was available was some cuddly soft toy that hummed tunes when its tummy was pressed. Indian children at that age have rattles and other toys to play with, but not their American counterparts.

I am back in India, and my son is now a few months older. I have managed to find some toys for him, but attempts to buy high-end ones usually fail. Companies like Fisher-Price attempt to follow the same standard for labeling toys as they do in the US, and sadly this means that any interesting toy is labeled “Not suitable for children under 3”, because apparently those toys invariably have small parts that cause a choking hazard.

We were planning to buy an inflatable rubber tub to pour water into and let him splash about. Just as I took out my credit card, we saw the choking hazard warning. It took some detective work, but we finally figured out that the small part in question was the lid covering the inlet for air.  The lid was attached to the tub, and it was exceedingly unlikely that a child would swallow it. In any case, responsible parents who will let 6 month old kids play in water will watch over them all the time. The warning label was obviously intended, not to protect children from choking, but manufacturers from lawsuits.

The danger from this defensive labeling is that either children will be left with no toys to play with, or parents, inundated with too many pointless warnings will start ignoring them, and some will also ignore real hazards.

Defending Modi’s Honour is Unnecessary

Ritwik’s lament is that all his arguments with me devolve into nitpicking.  My response is, he starts it.  For example, in my post about terrorism, I model Narendra Modi as being interested only in votes, not in combating terrorism. Ritwik’s response to that is that while is interested in both fighting terrorism and winning elections, and when there is a conflict between the two, winning elections takes precedence. In FitW’s formulation of the same point, Modi considers winning elections his patriotic duty to keep the evil Congress at bay, and therefore considers short term setbacks in the fight against terrorism as acceptable collateral damage. 

This is an astonishingly subtle distinction, and I took some time to grasp it. The trouble is, this distinction has very little to do with my actual argument. 

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The Model of Law Enforcement

It so happens that  my article in Pragati is around 200 words shorter than it should have been, because it was supposed to be one of a set of 2, and had a reduced word limit than the normal Pragati article. Neither Nitin nor I are very strict about word counts while editing. If an article is well-written, we don’t care if it goes a couple of hundred words over. But while writing I am very very conscious about word limits. I set a target, constantly check my pace, and almost always ensure that I make the limit.  When it became clear that Karthik’s article was not going to arrive, I was thinking of revising my article a bit, but then I had to rush to the hospital. So if I had given myself another 200 words, I would have been able to cover some of points I am covering now.

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Me in Pragati

I have an article up in the October 2008 issue of Pragati. There I argue against Karthik’s post on statistics and terrorism. I argue that if we give a “free hand” to our police to fight terrorism without insisting that they obtain convictions from courts, we will not only end up with too many innocent victims, but also too few genuine terrorists. This was supposed to run in a debate format, with an article from Karthik and a response from me, but Karthik asked for a bailout at the last minute, which left only my article standing.

Response on Harvard

Commenter Froginthewell says:

I don’t understand – Harvard is a private university, right? And this controversy is about propriety and not rights?

Well, yes. Harvard is a private university, but in this non-libertarian world, they are subject to various anti-discrimination laws which may or may not mandate or prohibit reserving a few hours for women in their gym.  I am not aware of, and I am not really very interested in the details of those laws, but start from The Volokh Conspiracy  if you are interested.

 Secondly, my point was a defence of the libertarian position, which starts from the presumption that owners should be broadly free (legally) to do what they wish within their property. If you agree with the libertarian position, then what you are saying makes sense. We can agree that Harvard should be legally free to do what it did, and then debate the propriety of that decision. Those libertarians who think that Harvard’s decision was improper would still be free to protest that decision through non-violent demostrations, signature campaigns or boycotts.

But my argument, naturally enough, was not directed at those who agree with me. It was directed at those who do not hold the libertarian position, which means that they are open to enforcing their sense of propriety through legislation, i.e. it was directed at precisely those who do not agree with the distinction that Froginthewell’s comment is drawing. I am not aware of just how many people fit that definition, but I am confident that the proportion is high enough that I can say that I was not attacking a strawman.

Finally, it so happens that I do not  agree with the view that this issue is about propriety. I think that this is, or ought to be,  a pragmatic decision, based on costs and benefits, best made at the local level on a case-by-case basis. Having a law for this is bad, but even making this into an issue of “propriety” is unwise. There is no need to bring out the heavy artillery of religious freedom, “discrimination”, women’s rights, etc. I was pointing out that this libertarian “dogmatism” on property rights is what enables us to be non-dogmatic about everything else, while those who do not agree with our dogma have no choice but to turn every issue into one of law or propriety.

There is Still Time to Repent

Those who keep criticising us libertarians for being too dogmatic about our insistence on property rights as the source of other rights, look upon the weird controversy over reserving a few hours for women at the Harvard gym, and repent.

For, the truth is that a dogmatic respect for certain fundamental rights is what enables us to be easygoing about most other things.

An employee who belongs to an orthodox Jewish faith wants to cut a Friday evening meeting short, because he cannot be in a car when Sabbath starts at sundown. Should we accommodate his request? Muslim employees request some changes in meal timings during Ramzan. Should we accommodate them? Obviously, all such requests will cause some inconvenience to others.  Is the cost too much? Are the beneficiaries a few or many? Are the the benefits worth it?  Are the beneficiaries willing to make other accommodations to compensate?

To me, it seems like a good idea to make reasonable accommodations for people’s religious or other beliefs, where possible. Whether we should in any particular case depends on so many factors, so many costs, so many benefits and the conflicting interests of so many constituencies that it would be highly presumptuous of me to make blanket statements one way or the other. But what I can state is that letting property owners make the decision devolves the decision making to those who are closest to the decision and who have the most stake in the costs and benefits of that decision.

Or, you could turn this into a legal question involving esoteric principles. Well, good luck. When you are trying to make a law for this, you are moving the decision-making up to the top. Your quest for foolish consistency will inevitably lead to foolish decisions, because no law will provide for every nuance that would be involved in individual cases.  There is still time. Come to Libertarianism my children!

Arresting Raj Thackeray

I have not been able to make up my mind on whether we should have laws against the kind of things Raj Thackeray says. Quite clearly, conspiring to commit violence should be punished. If I were to pick up a phone and ask a hitman to kill someone, I cannot claim free speech protection. I don’t see how anyone can claim free speech protection if he asked a crowd of people to do the same. The problem is that when people “incite violence” they do not use very precise words. A judge has to consider hidden meanings and effects of those words on “reasonable people”, and a person who listens to Raj Thackeray and then goes out to beat up North Indians is, by definition, unreasonable.

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