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Burch's Law

29 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 March 2007 02:39AM

Greg Burch said:

"I think people should have a right to be stupid and, if they have that right, the market's going to respond by supplying as much stupidity as can be sold."

Greg Burch was speaking about sport-utility vehicles, which he feels are very poorly designed.  Note that Burch was not advocating banning SUVs.  Burch did not even advocate regulating SUVs.  Burch thinks people should have a right to be stupid.  But Burch also openly acknowledges the real-world consequence of that right, which is that the market will respond by supplying as much stupidity as can be sold.  Perhaps Burch is strongly libertarian, and sees the case against regulation as a slam-dunk regardless of the consequences, and therefore has an easier time acknowledging the downside of his policy.  Or perhaps Burch is just a skillful rationalist.  Either way, I hereby canonize his observation as Burch's Law.

Burch's Law is a special case of a more general rule:  Just because your ethics require an action doesn't mean the universe will exempt you from the consequences.  If the universe were fair, like a sympathetic human, the universe would understand that you had overriding ethical reasons for your action, and would exempt you from the usual penalties.  The judge would rule "justifiable homicide" instead of "murder" and exempt you from the usual prison term.  Well, the universe isn't fair and it won't exempt you from the consequences.  We know the equations of physics in enough detail to know that the equations don't contain any quantities reflective of ethical considerations.

We don't send automobile manufacturers to jail, even though manufactured cars kill an estimated 1.2 million people per year worldwide.  (Roughly 2% of the annual planetary death rate.)  Not everyone who dies in an automobile accident is someone who decided to drive a car.  The tally of casualties includes pedestrians.  It includes minor children who had to be pushed screaming into the car on the way to school.  And yet we still manufacture automobiles, because, well, we're in a hurry.  I don't even disagree with this decision.  I drive a car myself.  The point is that the consequences don't change no matter how good the ethical justification sounds.  The people who die in automobile accidents are still dead.  We can suspend the jail penalty, but we can't suspend the laws of physics.

Humanity hasn't had much luck suspending the laws of economics, either.  If people have a right to be stupid, the market will respond by supplying all the stupidity that can be sold.

Comments (23)

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Comment author: Ian_Deans 08 March 2007 03:34:51AM 4 points [-]

I think the reference to the Holocaust is unnecessary.

Comment author: Today 22 April 2012 10:25:16PM 0 points [-]

Where's that?

Comment author: David_Gerard 23 April 2012 12:02:16AM 1 point [-]

Per comment below, it was removed.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 08 March 2007 03:39:07AM 2 points [-]

The market will also supply as much bias and justifications of bias as is wanted. If people want to here elaborate, sophisticated, and articulate justifications for why they and their associates are better than others and deserve to get their way, and why other people are too stupid too appreciate it, the market will fill their need.

Comment author: Aaron_Davies 08 March 2007 04:19:07AM 0 points [-]

Have you defined "fair", as you use it here, in a previous post? If so, I'd appreciate a link. If not, could you give a definition? Based on what I've read from you, I find your use of it somewhat at variance with my own concept of fairness, and I'd appreciate some clarity on exactly what you mean.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 March 2007 04:43:00AM 4 points [-]

Ian: you know, you're right. (Reference removed.)

Aaron, in this case I would define fair to mean consequences in proportion to the actions and decisions involved. Some other notable forms of unfairness which the universe presently practices include the birth lottery, not being warned that the action was potentially harmful, and impossibility of recovery.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 March 2007 04:48:05AM 1 point [-]

Robin: Yes, of course. The whole industry of pop psychoanalysis is built around that premise, and several other religions too.

The market supplies all kinds of stupidity, both legal and illegal. Tens of millions of dollars worth of innumeracy just this last weekend, in the Mega Millions lottery.

Or were you referring to arguments on view here at OB? If so, what's your intended referent?

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 08 March 2007 01:36:29PM 0 points [-]

Eliezer, I had nothing specific in mind.

Comment author: Doug_S.2 08 March 2007 06:54:06PM 0 points [-]

Rollover lottery jackpots can end up with prizes large enough so that the expected dollar value of a ticket is greater than the cost of a ticket; it's not necessarily foolish to buy a lottery ticket when the jackpot gets really large.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 March 2007 07:08:59PM 7 points [-]

Then hedge funds would buy tickets. Huge jackpots attract more buyers and have more than one expected winner. And, the advertised sum is not the lump sum, but the result of purchasing annuities - the lump sum is around half that. And, taxes. It's pretty darn hard to get an expected positive payoff even if you neglect the logarithmic utility of money - otherwise, as said, hedge funds would buy tickets.

Not that I think the sale of innumeracy should be banned. The history of the "numbers racket" shows that the demand for innumeracy is so strong that people will buy it on the black market if necessary.

Comment author: Matthew 08 March 2007 08:07:18PM 0 points [-]

Why is buying lottery tickets viewed as irrational while buying movie tickets rational?

Both are an opportunity for escapist fantasy. . . And you can buy one lottery ticket for each powerball drawing for a year for the cost of seeing 5-6 movies.

If someone wants to spend some of their booze and cigarette money in order to foster dreams of yachts and 40-caret diamonds - I don't begrudge them or look down at them for that. . .

Comment author: Doug_S.2 09 March 2007 04:32:24AM 2 points [-]

Hedge funds might very well buy lottery tickets in certain circumstances if it were easy to buy them in large numbers. Sometimes the jackpots go so high that if you were to buy a ticket of every single possible lottery combination, it would cost less than the total prize money given out. However, states that run lotteries deliberately make it very difficult to buy millions of tickets, making this strategy impossible to execute in practice.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 March 2007 05:48:36AM 1 point [-]

...Doug, are you really saying that lottery tickets are a wise investment? I invoke the mystical powers of common sense.

Comment author: Buzzcut 12 March 2007 07:27:13PM -1 points [-]

>>are you really saying that lottery tickets are a wise investment? I invoke the mystical powers of common sense.

The odds of winning the last Mega Millions drawing was 1 in 170M. How much would you have to "invest" in order to make the odds more in your favor?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 November 2007 12:56:12AM 0 points [-]

It's evident that xoc did not read the article carefully, but in any case, I don't own an SUV.

Comment author: Caledonian2 13 November 2007 01:25:19AM 1 point [-]

Purchasing lottery tickets is unlikely ever to be profitable, because when the jackpot increases in size to the point where it might be theoretically worthwhile to buy a ticket, so many people buy a ticket that the rules for having multiple winners come into play, which effectively reduces the jackpot significantly.

It's never a good idea.

I will also note that you can dream of yachts and diamonds just as easily, and as plausibly, by not buying a lottery ticket as by buying one. But it's slightly cheaper not to.

Comment author: J_Thomas 13 November 2007 02:58:39AM 8 points [-]

xoc, the names of commenters are at the bottom of their comments, not the top. The commenter you were responding to was actually Buzzcut, not Eliezer.

Buzzcut, if you pay more for water than you do for gasoline, I want to suggest you find a cheaper source for your water. I can buy certified water in gallon jugs for not much over $1/gallon, but gasoline here is $3/gallon. I can get water cheaper in larger quantities, and I could buy a cheaper brand but then I find myself wondering about the certification. Kind of like buying the cheapest gasoline....

Comment author: Glen_Raphael 13 November 2007 02:59:32AM 6 points [-]

Once in a very great while, lottery tickets become a positive-expectation investment. On those occasions, large groups do indeed invest in them. Gambling consortiums have the necessary expertise and inclination more often than hedge funds. Wikipedia says:

a Polish-Irish businessman named Stefan Klincewicz bought up almost all of the 1,947,792 combinations available on the Irish lottery. He and his associates paid less than one million Irish pounds while the jackpot stood at ÂŁ1.7 million. There were three winning tickets, but with the "Match 4" and "Match 5" prizes, Klincewicz made a small profit overall.

I also recall an incident many years ago where a foreign (Australian?) gambling consortium tried to get all the numbers in a US state lottery, but I can't find the reference just now.

Comment author: xoc 16 November 2007 01:00:38AM 5 points [-]

Eliezer - I believe I understood the article, but I admit I misattributed your name as the author of the comment who couldn't understand why people dislike his SUV (thanks J Thomas for pointing that out - I did mean Buzzcut :-)

I was attempting to explain to Buzzcut why SUVs are so despised as (s)he genuinely seemed perplexed. As the advertising for those types of vehicles frequently reflects, SUVs are like a 2 tonne 'fuck you' to other road users and the rest of society generally. There is no doubt their owners are responsible for all the harm they cause... as are the manufacturers, marketers, etc. That isn't going to be much consolation to someone killed or maimed by one though... or to the whole planet as the consequences of global warming start to bite.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 November 2007 06:50:21AM 2 points [-]

Eliezer - I believe I understood the article, but I admit I misattributed your name as the author of the comment who couldn't understand why people dislike his SUV (thanks J Thomas for pointing that out - I did mean Buzzcut :-)

Ah, k. Didn't notice the following comment as a possible source of confusion, sorry.