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January 12, 2011

Risk, Prohibition, and Category 3

This post is insanely long, and it might be too obvious for most people, and some may decide at the end I've wasted their time.

Maybe it is obvious; I don't know. Sometimes I think there's a value in stating the obvious explicitly, because otherwise people tend to assume it, and therefore overlook it -- and therefore its very obviousness makes it inobvious.

You know when a post is long? When it starts with a Roman numeral. If you just want some anti-left invective, skip to VI.


I'm good at seeing plot twists coming in movies because I'm keyed into the basic structure of plot, and I know, basically, there are twenty plots and fifteen subplots and a couple dozen variations and once you know those, you know every plot.

Political arguments tend to follow similar patterns, but there are even fewer "plots." 90% of all arguments about policy are about the existence, or nonexsitence, of "Category 3." Which I'll explain later.

What makes Category 3 such a contentious point of debate is, first of all, that people tend to talk about risk, particularly the risk of death, in ways they know, inside, to be false. We speak, rhetorically, publicly, about the need to avoid risk, and especially death, as if this imperative is absolute. We must do everything we can to ensure there will never be another _____ -- fill in the blank. Today it's Jared Loughner.

In fact, we have never been absolute about death. We all remember from our Drivers' Ed classes that driving ten miles over the limit increases the risk of death in a collision by a nontrivial amount, some increased odds of death that is not so small as to be a rounding error. A number large enough to count -- 2%, 3%, 5%. Whatever it is. I'm not looking up because the actual number isn't important. What's important is that I know there is in fact an increased risk of fatality in a collision for each 10 mph I go over the limit, and I blow this off. I don't think about it. I shoot for a speed that has nothing to do with physical safety; it's really just about what I can get away with without drawing a ticket. Not anything having to do with elevated risk to a life that should, in theory, matter to me.

In the seventies, I think, lawsuits were directed at car companies for "design defects" that increased the odds of fatality in collision. In fact, they weren't defects at all. Car designers could make every car as safe as possible -- with heavy steel frames and heavy bumpers and and the like -- but they don't. They have mathematicians calculating risk, and they pick a risk-level they think is reasonable, taking into account the target cost of the vehicle. And yeah, cheap cars are lighter and smaller and therefore more deadly in collisions.

And to make sense of that risk -- because equations need numbers -- they had to assign a dollar-value to a human life.

The plaintiffs there claimed that it was inhuman and so on to "assign a value to a human life and say that that life will not be protected above a target cost," but the courts wisely ruled against such claims. Because, while we may talk as if each human life has inestimable value and is precious beyond mere dollars, in real life, we know that's not true. We don't act as if that's true. We are well aware of the risk of death when we undertake certain risks, and we go ahead undertaking those risks anyway.

It's not true that we assign life an infinite value, and that value, being infinite, therefore trumps all other considerations. We assign it a limited value, so that some risks do turn out to be "worth it," in our minds. The typical public rhetoric does not match the reality we all understand. You're not allowed to say that a human life only has a value of $10,000,000, or whatever you assign it, in public. You're called "inhuman" or cynical or whatever.

Nonetheless, we all do a quasi-economic calculation when we undertake risks, and whether we assign the value of our lives at $1,000,000 or $50,000,000, there is some number attached to it. Whatever it is, it's not "infinity." It's large, but it's not infinitely large.

It's because of this disconnect between what we say about death and what we actually know about death that Category 3 takes such an outsized role in the public debate.


Category 3 is a simple idea. Anytime we're talking about banning something -- and here we go right now, we're talking about banning 1) all political rhetoric on the right, 2) all people on the right, 3) mags holding more than ten rounds; 4) mags holding more than zero rounds, 5) pot, 6) heavy metal music, and who knows what else by the end of the week -- we argue about whether these various forbiddences, large and small, will reduce the risk of catastrophe by people in Category 3, and the argument generally goes "Category 3 is very large and so we must have a new prohibition" and on the other side "Category 3 is very small, or does not exist at all, so the prohibition is futile."

Category 1 is almost everyone. 99%+ of the public exists in Category 1. People in Category 1 simply are not, under any circumstances, going to do anything spectacularly bad. It doesn't matter how much pot they smoke, how many Judas Priest albums they listen to, how many guns they own, how much Glen Beck they listen to. Prohibitions have no effect on Category 1 people because they're immune from these supposedly-dread inputs in any event.

Category 1 people aren't very important in this debate, then, at least as far as the supposed wonders of new prohibitions, because they don't need prohibitions to avoid going postal.

Category 2 is, I don't know, whatever the percentage is -- 0.01% of the population. The crazies. Those born bad. The people with bad wiring and bad chemicals in their heads. These people are pretty much pre-programmed to do insanely evil things, and there's pretty much nothing you can do to stop them.

Prohibitions also have no effect at all on Category 2 people, because, it doesn't matter what the laws are, or what media they watch. They're psychopaths.

A good example of Category 2 is Jeffrey Dahmer. As you probably know, Dahmer was obsessed with the image of the Emperor from Star Wars seated on his throne in front of that big window out into space. Did anyone suggest that, due to Jeffrey Dahmer, we need to "crack down on Star Wars"? No, not a single person in the world suggested that. We understood Dahmer to be Category 2, and it didn't matter which movies he watched; whether Willow or Weekend at Bernie's or Three Men and a Baby, it didn't matter. Someone who's going to get the idea "I should kill people, and cut up their body parts, and put them in the fridge, and eat them when I want to snack" from Return of the Jedi is, I think obviously, going to get that idea from whatever movie he's watching. Or not watching.

Similarly, while people did in fact fret about the extreme violence in Taxi Driver, very few people suggested that that film "caused" John Hinkley to shoot Reagan. Some did, I'm sure (because Taxi Driver was already controversial), but we didn't have a big national debate over Taxi Driver. We understood that someone who got the idea that Jodie Foster would be his girlfriend if he killed the president was someone who didn't really need much prompting from Martin Scorcese. Taxi Driver "caused" John Hinkley to go crazy in much the same way Catcher in the Rye "caused" Mark David Chapman to kill John Lennon -- that is, not at all.

Category 2 people are also irrelevant to the national debate on any suggested prohibition, then, for a reason exactly opposite the reason Category 1 is irrelevant: Category 1 people will not kill people no matter what "temptations" are offered to them; Category 2 people, on the other hand, will kill people no matter what "temptations" are denied to them, so they are effectively unreachable by any public policy response.

Unless you want to ban Taxi Driver, Catcher in the Rye, and Return of the Jedi. And everything else, including Barney the Dinosaur, because, hey, dinosaurs would eat people if they could, right?


Which leads to Category 3, a category of person which may or may not exist, and, even it if does exist, is almost certainly the tiniest category of all. Category 3 people -- a group of about the same size as Category 2, maybe a little bigger, probably a little smaller -- are the people that supposedly are controllable by prohibitions. These are the people who, it is supposed, would not go on shooting sprees but for the existence of some social evil -- guns, pot, heavy metal, violent video games, action movies, a "climate of hate," a propagandistic militarization of American society, take your pick.

These are the ticking time-bombs who, unlike Category 2 nutters, do not light their own fuses. Their fuses must be lit by external actors or external circumstances.

Were it not for the existence of this terrible temptation towards evil, the thinking goes, Category 3 people would not murder people, so if we could just prohibit the stimulus or tool they used in their crime, we would not have the crime at all.

So that's why these arguments about prohibition always are arguments about the existence or nonexistence of Category 3 and about the size of this group. Every argument goes like this: Those against the prohibition say that everyone is in Category 1 or Category 2 -- they either never will commit crime, or always will commit crime -- so no prohibition will have any effect. If pressed, they may admit the theoretical possibility of the existence of Category 3, but will immediately say "but that is such a tiny handful of people there is no compelling reason to reduce everyone's freedom for such a small number of hypothetical situationally-bad actors (that is, good or bad depending on public policy inputs).

Those urging prohibition will swear to the existence of Category 3, and further state it is a rather large segment of the population. They don't usually put a percentage of it, but usually they seem to be talking about a very large slice of the population indeed, if we go by their rhetorical fury -- at least 1%, maybe 10%, and if you're talking about Tea Partiers, approaching 60%.

Every argument goes just like that. Just like that. Prohibitions on enhanced interrogation techniques, a.k.a. "torture," follow the same pattern, but a bit in reverse-- those seeking to ban torture swear there's no such thing as Category 3 -- a terrorist who will not respond to conventional law enforcement techniques, but may respond to tougher measures-- and thus swear every terrorist is Category 1 (will talk, if you just ask him nicely) or Category 2 (will not talk under any circumstances, including actual torture) so there's never, never a reason to waterboard someone, ever.


Here's my thinking on Category 3: Although it may sound like I'm suggesting it doesn't exist, in fact I generally assume it does. I do so not based on particular "studies" or the like; I just go by the general principle of physics -- if it can happen, it will happen. An idea I think derived from the Law of Large Numbers -- given a sufficient number of trials (a sufficient number of people), any circumstance which is not explicitly forbidden by the laws of nature will, sometimes, exist.

So to me a lot of the absolutist argumentation over Category 3 is a bit silly and off-topic. We don't know whether it exists or not in any case; on the other hand, we can probably guess it exists (all things exist, if not specifically forbidden by the laws of nature) and really the only argument is about how large the group is.

Which we also can't know.

So, after all this arguing about whether Category 3 exists or not, and how big it might be, we really have no idea. We can talk and talk about it but we don't know. I can't say for sure if smoking pot was a necessary pre-condition for Loughner's killing spree. Probably not, I'd say, but I don't know, and can't rule it out.

(Oddly enough, the only thing I can rule out is that a "climate of hate" caused this-- because I know for a fact, based on his writings and testimony of those who knew him, that he was not animated by right-wing politics at all. What we really should be talking about is whether we should prohibit the government from using grammar to mind-control the population, which is really Loughner's complaint. Personally, I'm on the anti-using-grammar-to-achieve-mind-control side of the argument, but I invite contrary arguments on this crucial issue. I'm curious as to how social cons and libertarians might wind up in agreement, or disagreement, about whether the government should be permitted to continuing mind-controlling us through selective and arbitrary rules of grammar. And date-conventions, of course.)

That's how these arguments play out, publicly. Category 3 does exist; Category 3 doesn't exist, or is so small to be a rounding error.


Then comes the next phase. Because no one can prove his position that Category 3 doesn't exist, or is trivially small, or Category 3 does exist, and is frighteningly large, the next step is to argue about the value of the risky thing in question.

A calculation of whether a risk is a justified one depends on two main variables -- one, the odds the risk will result in catastrophe, and two, the value gained by undertaking that risk, even if in some cases it will have a bad result. And here is where people really live, because they have an easy answer about the second variable. This is a remarkably easy inquiry for most people, especially those on the liberal side, as they don't have a strong ideology of freedom to warn them away, generally, from prohibition, since it's really just asking the simple question: Hey, do I like this thing or don't I like this thing?

If you don't personally like a thing, if you find no value in it, it's a remarkably tempting thing to do to just assign that thing zero legitimate value and therefore argue for prohibition: After all, if something has zero legitimate value then it doesn't matter what the exact risk of the activity or thing might be -- as long as the risk is above zero, then it should be prohibited (in thinking that doesn't include a strong pro-freedom element) because in that case the risks, the downside, clearly exceeds the value, the upside. Because, of course, the thing in question has been assigned a value of exactly zero.

If not lower.

Don't like pot? Don't enjoy it? Assign it zero legitimate value and ergo any and all risks of pot-use exceed any legitimate value of thing and it's an easy call. Ban it.

Don't like heavy metal? Don't dig it? Assign it zero legitimate value and ergo all risks of depression, suicide, and social isolation -- all the claims made about the ills heavy metal "causes" -- far outweigh the value of it, because the value is zero and the risks -- however tiny -- must exceed zero, even if only barely.

Guns? Oh my oh my, is this an easy one for liberals! Guns have zero legitimate value, for hunting, for pleasure, for home defense, for defense of the person; and obviously they have high risks associated with them! This is the easiest call of all!

This is all too easy, and leads to too many prohibitions. You cannot just assign a thing a value of zero, for all other people, because you don't like it. A proper evaluation of risk and value must take into account the value experience by the people who do find value in it.

Everyone's bad like that, but liberals are generally worse, because they tend to have absolutely no respect -- not even a token nod of it -- for anyone thinking differently than they do.

And they're taking that to the ultimate step now.


In the case of Loughner, a tragedy welcomed ghoulishly by the left, leftists have even bigger ambitions in mind than they've ever admitted before.

Guns? That's nothing. Banning guns, or at least a lot of them, is a minor step on the way to a much bigger goal: What they're seeking to do in the current debate is prohibit any and all expressions of right-leaning political belief.

And it's an easy call for them, of course. Right-leaning political belief has zero legitimate value -- negative value, really! -- and the risks of such dangerous thought are frighteningly large!

Ban it. Ban the right. Ban them entirely. They contribute no positive value to society and in fact impose unbearably-high risks.

That is, essentially, what this is all about. Never has the left been so brazen or ambitious in the scope of what it seeks to prohibit. In this case, their rhetoric indicates they seek nothing short of the muzzling of the right, the entire right, everyone who disagrees. The risks of our opposition to Obama, that some people will be dangerously upset by our use of the word "socialist," are simply too high.

Oh I suppose we'll be permitted, as formalistic nod to the old, outdated Constitution, to offer token resistance. Ineffectual resistance. We'll be permitted to say things that are so non-inciting they fail to incite any genuine persuasion in the public.

But anything more than that? We're not allowed to say it. The risks are simply too high.

Jared Loughner proves that, in fact, by not proving it. Loughner clearly was not watching Glen Beck or listening to Rush Limbaugh or reading Sarah Palin's tweets. We know this for a fact. The leftist media even admits this, sometimes, when they have no other good options.

But that just proves that our provocations are even more dangerous. For if such provocations tilted the mind of a right-leaning politically-involved sort of Category 3 person, well, that's the paradigmatic situation you're looking for to prove your thesis. In that sort of situation, you'd have the proof you were looking for.

But -- follow the leftist logic here -- Loughner is not a Tea Partier, or a conservative, or even right leaning at all. This proves that not only can our provocations influence our own crazies (which is 60% of us, to hear them talk) but in fact are so potent they can even drive those who don't listen to us to kill.

Do you see that next argument taking shape? Taking shape? Having taken shape, I should say, past perfect. Krugman and all the rest of them, having called this as a deranged right-winger (and been proven wrong) simply make their argument more all-encompassing. They're no longer arguing that right-wing invective can have an unbalanacing effect on right-wingers who hear it.

Their new argument is that right-wing invective can have an unbalancing effect on non-right-wingers -- left-wingers, even -- who don't hear it.

That's how insidious this all is. That's how dangerous this all is. Right wing chatter can now drive left-wingers who don't even hear it to kill people.

And not only does Category 3 exist, it's quite large -- like I said, I really believe they really believe that upwards of 60% of Tea Party are ticking time bombs ready to kill upon receiving Rush Limbaugh's next coded message.

And Laughner proves how scary all of this is. If even a left-winger can't resist Rush Limbaugh's commands to kill when he doesn't even hear them, what possible chance is there that the 60% of the Tea Party which is primed to murder will resist his call when they do hear it?

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posted by Ace at 10:33 AM

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