Monday, May 11, 2015

Swiss regulation

This week I'm at a conference on "Social norms and institutions" in stunningly beautiful Ascona, Switzerland. So there might be a slew of broadly-uninteresting note-like posts on the topic. At conferences and during interesting seminars I usually end up with pages and pages of notes with these idle ponderings, but as long as the apparent norm that laptops can stay open persists, I might as well type them directly into blogger instead...

But first something more concrete, but still on the topic: Going back to this topic of libertarian societies, I previously mentioned that I frequently hear Australia cited as one of the better libertarian countries, mostly due to its fairly small government in terms of spending levels, but that I can't understand how this reputation persists given their intense love affair with regulation. Switzerland is another country that I also hear cited as a libertarian country for the exact same reason. I haven't been here until now and so haven't commented on it, but strongly suspected that the homogeneity of northern Europe that  effectively restricts freedom in Scandinavia, and the love of rules that effectively restricts freedom in Germany, would also exist here. And boy, is that ever true. Within two hours of being here I'd heard three Swiss residents independently joke about how there is a specific rule for everything under the sun. E.g., earthquakes never happen here but once every 300,000 years when the ground shakes a bit, every building will be up to code to withstand a magnitude 9. (Not surprisingly, real estate is ludicrously expensive.)

At dinner, we also all had a good laugh at the regimented approach to managing the buffet. The servers let each table know in sequence when they were allowed to get in line, and when I went up to an empty buffet for seconds and went straight to the end instead of around the "correct" direction, was immediately corrected (in jest, mostly, but it wouldn't have been funny if it weren't based in truth!)

Why?? So, I understand the logic, which is that clear rules ensure smooth functionality. But this logic is predicated on a very skewed belief about homogeneity in preferences. And this false notion of homogeneity is exactly what I think often leads people to support too much regulation*. If there were a more laissez-faire approach to the buffet line, a paternalistic Swiss might view the line as socially wasteful, and might view the first people to jump in line as selfishly impatient, and might pity the ones at the end of the line who only get the dregs from the salad bowl, and he might wish to institute this formal mechanism to correct these ills. But why does he think this will lead to an improvement? People who formerly waited in line were entirely free to remain seated until the line died down, and must have preferred to wait while standing. Those who jumped to the front of the line may have been particularly hungry or particularly concerned about getting a good helping of salad. Different preferences entirely warrant different choices. The formal approach restricts free choice on the grounds that this will solve some kind of public good or externality problem, and I have no idea what makes people think that the laissez-faire approach is so dysfunctional, or that preferences are so homogeneous that free choice is dispensable, to warrant this tradeoff.

Along the same lines, I suspect that a great deal of my aversion to paternalism is due to having pretty oddball preferences in many ways (in addition to an independent aversion to being told what to do in any case.) I'm frequently surprised that other oddballs are so trusting that more regulation will go in their favor, or maybe that they underestimate their oddness or the prevalence of oddness in general, even in the U.S., which has the huge advantage of being so diverse that homogeneity in any dimension is hard to believe in.

*In addition to selfishly wanting other people to behave a certain way that suits me, of course. Ignore that for now.


JohnRaymond said...

The "love of regulation" as you call it in Switzerland is probably related to the same factors that have brought it about in Germany (in fact, sometimes people refer to CH as a little Germany except even more German, sort of in concentrated form. The factors I'm think of are: population density and history. Whether it works or not, populations in places that have suffered period of extreme chaos prefer a regulated existence, and when you add population density to that history, the preference is even more extreme.
The periods of extreme chaos that I refer to are, for Germany 1618-48, 1848, 1914-18, 1939-45. For CH the periods when the Austrians tried to rule (the Wilhelm Tell period), and then when the French tried to rule. Both involved major rebellions, wars, etc. When the Swiss finally won their independence, they treasured it more than anything else wrt political-social form. Hence their declining to join the EU back in 1995.

Vera L. te Velde said...

Yeah that makes a lot of sense. And I have great admiration for their fabled neutrality and minding-their-own-business approach to foreign policy. I wish more followed their example.

The historical rootedness of societal norms is one of the things that really interests me about social norms. They are so hard to change or introduce, even when it's sort of patently obvious that a new norms would be highly beneficial (bitter unending civil wars should end, you shouldn't poop in your drinking water source, foot-binding, etc etc etc). I think it's fantastic that the U.S. has such a strong norm (well, not strong enough, and weakening by the day, but still better than most countries...) of individual freedom and personal responsibility. I wish that norm could spread, but nowhere else has the same history, so it's not going to happen.

Rick Mandler said...

I think this example actually illustrates one of libertarianism's biggest challenges. What if EVERYONE gets up all at once in order to get to the buffet table? And further, what if there was the very real possibility that at some point, the table will be bare?

This strikes me as a much more realistic possibility, than the heterogenous and benign preferences posed by the professor in her blog post. In the case of everyone getting up and rushing the table, literally the strongest will get to the head of the line, and the weakest will get the scraps, if any. Is that a world that maximizes freedom? I think it does in the free-for-all sense of freedom, but not in the preserving human dignity and integrity sense of freedom.

Vera L. te Velde said...

So, in general I do acknowledge that market failures occur and I agree that if the benefits outweigh the costs, the government can play a legitimate rule in improving outcomes. This is the main reason I'm only borderline "self-conscious" as a libertarian. Like feminism, it's a philosophy with which many people can agree with the basic tenets but still not wish to associate themselves with the label.

But in this example, I disagree that there's a problem. If there is a shortage of food, why will an arbitrary ordering be any better than a free for all? Someone is going to get left out either way, and the latter allows for spontaneous coordination and assessment of relative utilities that a central planner can't do. Certainly if there isn't a shortage of food, I see no reason why everyone jumping in line is a problem.

I also wouldn't include "human dignity" and related things in the definition of liberty. It's twisting words like that that lead people to conclude that restricting options of consenting adults can improve freedom, as in prostitution, minimum wages, markets for organs, etc. Maybe such restrictions improve something, but not freedom (and not total welfare).