Friday, 6 February 2004

Road-blogging at the CA

My neighbor Tom Bailey, a reporter at the Commercial Appeal, is doing some road-blogging on the CA’s web site.

My co-blogger has expressed skepticism about the Commercial Appeal’s in-house blogs in the past, although I can’t find the post. I can’t say anything bad about Tom’s blog, though, because he knows where I live. So let me just say “Prove him wrong, Tom!”

Irrational preferences

In light of the German cannibalism case, Will Baude ponders the public policy implications of irrational preferences, such as the desire to be killed and eaten. Will writes:

Anyway, my own inclination is to say that it’s a bad idea to pretend that such people held preferences other than the ones they actually do have, a bad idea, therefore, to keep them from harming themselves if that’s what they want to do. Even if the preference is irrational, it’s still a preference.
This is probably a topic way to big to be treated effectively in one blog post. I’m sure philosophers have written entire books on the topic. But let me throw out a suggestion. One key to determining whether a preference is irrational, and hence whether there is a legitimate paternalistic interest in suppressing the fullfillment of that preference through public policy, is whether those who have that preference also have a second-order preference not to have that preference. (This is neither a necessary or sufficient condition. At best, it is one disjunct of a sufficient condition.) We can no longer ask the poor, err, victim in the German cannibalism case whether he would prefer not to have a death wish, but he well might have said yes. Similarly, it seems to me from talking to smokers, that many of them not desire to smoke, but they would prefer not to have that desire: hence their usually futile attempts to quit.

It seems to me there are three sorts of reasons that one might have a second-order preference not to have have a given preference.

  1. A person might prefer not to have a desire because she knows the desire will go unfulfilled, and this lack of fulfillment causes mental anguish. One might desire to have sex with some movie star, but knowing this lust is certain to be unrequited, one would prefer not to have this desire. I don’t see much scope for paternalistic public policy in solving the problems created by these sorts of desires. And I wouldn’t call these desires irrational.
  2. A person might prefer not to have a desire merely because of public policy itself, whether formally written into law or as part of informal societal mores. A gay man might prefer not to have the desire to have sex with other men, not because of anything inherently bad about gay sex, but because of the potential for being arrested (pre-Lawrence), or because of widespread bigotry against gays. In this case, public policy is the problem, and so there is no excuse for paternalism. Nor would I call these desires irrational.
  3. A person might prefer not to have a desire because the desired entity is intrisically bad, i.e. it conflicts with other more strongly held prefernces, out of physical necessity. The German cannibalism victim might have desired to have a comfortable retirement sailing about the Mediterranean, but he could not fulfill both this desire and his desire to be killed and eaten. Many smokers wish to have a long life, but their desire to smoke is in conflict with this. It is in this category that we find the truly irrational desires.

Only when the unwanted desires are of the third type is there a prima facie case to be made for paternalistic public policy. In the third case, the public policy might actually be helping the weak-willed person fulfill their second order desire, thus resulting in greater utility (if we define utility in terms of satisfied preferences, or use satisfied preferences as a proxy for utility).

How much did the last round of tax cuts save you?

There’s an excellent factual article over at The Motley Fool on the 2003 tax cuts, much of which is devoted to helping you figure out how much you saved on Federal income tax vs. the year 2002. According to the article, I paid about $450 less this year than I would have given the 2002 tax tables.

Of course, I don’t really count it as a tax cut, given the profligate spending of the Republican Congress and admininistration. I figure I’ll be paying for it one way or another eventually.

From bad to worse

In 11 days, we may no longer have Howard Dean to kick around any more. G33k-turned-law-student Joy has Dean’s numbers from Wisconsin (via dKos), and they don’t look pretty at all, with Dean’s “unfavorable” rating approaching 40%.

Today's self-fisking DM op-ed page

Today’s Daily Mississippian shoots 0-for-4 on op-ed page articles. Let’s review:

  • The editorial contains this whopper of sheer idiocy:
    Though it remains controversial, especially among circles of Christians and other religious groups, evolution is still one of the most widely taught theories about the roots of the world. When origins taught to students, not only in Georgia but also nationwide, it should be maintained that evolution has not been accepted as scientific law.
  • A non-sensical column that proposes that improving the electric grid will, in and of itself, cause a huge economic recovery. Special bonus for the moronic statement that a “dirty bomb” during a power outage could kill 250,000 people.
  • A long screed about how Greeks don’t contribute to the university’s endowment, or something.
  • Last, but not least, a letter to the editor defending rude behavior, so long as the reason for one’s rudeness is proselytization.

Now, generally I don’t read the DM op-ed page for enlightement anyway, but today’s edition may have been the first that actually had the result of making me stupider.

The cases everyone should know

Tim Sandefur is collecting nominations for “the canon” —as he puts it, “the ten Supreme Court decisions every American (not lawyers or law students!) should read.” So far, Scipio’s list seems the most complete:

  1. Marbury v. Madison
  2. Dred Scott
  3. Plessy v. Ferguson
  4. The Slaughter House Cases
  5. Brown v. Board of Education
  6. Erie
  7. Wickard v. Filburn
  8. Texas v. Johnson
  9. Printz v. US
  10. (tie) Mapp v. Ohio and NY Times v. Sullivan

He also lists, as honorable mentions: Korematsu, Roe v. Wade, Flood v. Kuhn, Lopez, Bowers v. Hardwick, and Harper’s Lessee.

Turning first to the Top Ten: my recollection is that I’ve never mentioned Erie, Wickard, and Printz, and I’ve only mentioned Slaughter-House in passing (trying to explain why the privileges or immunities clause is in the 14th Amendment) in intro. From the honorable mentions, Flood and Harper’s Lessee didn’t make it either; nor, I think, does Korematsu (no doubt to the chagrin of Eric Muller) or Lopez, but it’s been two years since I last taught the class (Fall 2001—I taught methods in Spring of 2002) so it may have been mentioned. All of the cases that don’t make it in (except Korematsu and Lopez) are ones I’d have to stop and think about before remembering what they’re about.

Notable omissions from Scipio’s list that do make it into the lecture: Griswold, McCullough v. Maryland, Casey, some of the gerrymandering cases (Baker v. Carr, Shaw v. Reno, Thornburg v. Gingles spring to mind), Washington v. Davis, Bakke, Miller v. Johnson, and Bowers v. Hardwick. Chandra v. INS (the line-item veto case) may or may not get a mention when we talk about the executive branch, as might U.S. v. Nixon. Romer v. Colorado might be in there too. If I were lecturing today, I’d have to add Texas v. Johnson, of course.

This might (or might not) tell you something about the biases of the writers of political science textbooks. Intro, mind you, isn’t a con law class; I have 375 minutes in the semester to talk about civil rights and liberties, and a lot of that time is devoted to things outside the courts. Nor is con law really in my general field of expertise, although I could probably teach it to undergraduates in a pinch if absolutely needed.