Trigger Point

M1911A1 by Springfield Armory, Inc. (contempor...

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One rather important matter is determining the appropriate trigger point for regulation and law. The basic challenge is determining the level at which a problem is such that it warrants the creation and enforcement of regulations and laws.

While it would be unreasonable to expect that an exact line can be drawn in all or even any cases (to require such an exact line would be to fall into the line-drawing fallacy, a variation on the false dilemma fallacy), a general level can presumably be set in regards to tolerance of harm.

Naturally, the level of reasonable tolerance would involve many variables, such as the number of cases of harm, the severity of the harm, the cost of regulation/laws, and so on. For example, paying a cost to regulate or outlaw something that causes no harms would seem to be unreasonable and wasteful.  As such, the various “morality” laws that regulate consensual sex between adults would be unreasonable and wasteful. As another example, paying a modest cost to regulate or outlaw something that causes considerable harm in both numbers and severity would seem reasonable. Thus, the regulation of alcohol and tobacco seems reasonable.

While the specifics will vary from case to case, there should be a consistent approach to these determinations based on general principles regarding costs, number of incidents, severity of the harm and so on. In general, a utilitarian approach would be sensible—weighing out the likely benefits and harms for the various approaches to determine the most reasonable approach.

Not surprisingly, people tend to approach the trigger point of law and regulation very inconsistently. As with most matters of law and regulation, people tend to assess matters based on what they like and dislike rather than rationally assessing the relevant factors.

As a matter of comparison, consider the gun related deaths of children and voter fraud. While there is some dispute about the exact number of children who die from accidental gunshot wounds children obviously do die in this manner.  Not surprisingly, some people have endeavored to strengthen the regulation of guns and pass laws that are aimed at preventing the accidental death of children from gunshots. It is also not surprising that the National Rifle Association (and other similar organizations) have lobbied against such efforts and have argued about the statistics regarding the gun related deaths of children. While the N.R.A. is obviously not in favor of the death of children, the approach taken has also included the standard method of contending that the problem is not at the trigger point at which new regulation or laws should be created and enforced. The general idea is that the harm being done is not significant enough to warrant new regulation or laws regarding guns, such as rules for the safe storage of weapons. In support of this, the N.R.A argues that the death rate from accidental shootings is less than falls, poison or “environmental factors.” That is, not enough children are dying to warrant new laws or regulation (I will assume that the death of a child is regarded as being a serious harm).

There is also considerable dispute about voter fraud, although even those who regard voter fraud as a serious problem admit that the number of incidents is tiny. However, after the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding the Voting Right Act several states enacted laws alleged to be aimed at addressing voter fraud. These laws include those requiring voters to have the proper ID (which former Speaker of the House Jim Wright was not able to get) and those aimed at reducing or eliminating such things as early voting. In general, these laws seem to be ineffective in regards to actual fraud and the existing laws seem to be adequate for catching fraud. For example, eliminating early voting would not seem to have any capacity to deter fraud. While the voter ID laws might seem to have the potential to be effective, actual voter fraud typically does not involve a person voting in person as someone else. Even if it did have some value in preventing voter fraud, it would do so at a great cost, namely disenfranchising many voters. Overall, the main impact of these laws is to not reduce voter fraud (which is minuscule already) but to disenfranchise people. In some cases politicians and pundits admit that these laws are intended to do just that and in some cases they get in trouble for this.

Given the low number of incidents of voter fraud and the considerable harm that is done by the laws allegedly created to counter it, it would seem that such laws would be rather unjustified when using a rational approach to setting a trigger point for new laws or regulations. It could, of course, be argued that the harm done by allowing a minuscule amount of voter fraud is so serious that it warrants disenfranchising people—that is, trying to prevent a few fraudulent votes is worth preventing many legitimate votes from being cast.

Interestingly enough, some of the folks who are pushing hard for new laws to “prevent” voter fraud are the same folks who push hard to prevent new laws to reduce the deaths of children. This presents an interesting look at how people actually make decisions about trigger points.

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  1. Something is only ‘bad’ if it causes material harm.

    Our argument is that these matters are only determinable by the willingness of an insurer to insure against the action. If it is unprofitable to insure against the action, then it is likely something we should just prohibit. If it is easy to insure against, then it is something we should leave alone.

    There is no alternative ratio-empirical means by which a monopoly can make such a determination. We have a very, very bad record of deciding what should and should not be ‘permitted’.

    Secondly, the high trust society is predicated on NOT defining laws that limit behavior, in the french and german style (napoleonic law), and instead, in anglo-scandinavian style, anything that is not specifically prohibited is permitted (the common law).

    These are not philosophical questions. They are empirical questions. And the empirical means of measuring behavior is the willingness and ability to insure against it.

    That is, after all, what a government does: it functions as an insurer of last resort. But that the insurer should be the last resort, is very different from whether that insurer of last resort should be a monopoly.

    your question, as it is stated, implies that the state, and reason, and monopoly, are superior to private agency, empirical measurement, and demonstrated evidence. Including demonstrated willingness to risk, as demonstrated evidence of the truth of one’s statements.

    This is both rationally and empirically a damning criticism of law, state, and and moral philosophy as anti-scientific.

    But you know, i’ve been working on this problem for something like forty years and I am not terribly optimistic about convincing a lot of people – especially given the academic preference for anti-rational, anti-scientific. postmodern mysticism. 🙂

  2. “Interestingly enough, some of the folks who are pushing hard for new laws to “prevent” voter fraud are the same folks who push hard to prevent new laws to reduce the deaths of children.”

    Mike, I hope you’re not slyly playing the race card. You know America has changed a lot since the days you could shoot and kill a black teenager with impunity, but they’d throw you in jail and take your gun, for casually gesticulating with the self same constitutionally protected firearm in the face of a white woman.

    “This presents an interesting look at how people actually make decisions about trigger points.”

    Interesting in who has got their finger on that trigger.

    This is an example of the corrupting disease of moral relativism, that American academics have insidiously spread, for their own inexplicable but indubitably perverse reasons, to weaken the moral fibre of even America’s most moral.

    Exhibit Trey. The other Trey from Florida, the one who is still alive. Republican congressman, Trey Radel. It is oft said, poor people commit crimes, while rich people make mistakes. And poor Trey recently made a mistake. He was down in Du Pont Circle (Described on the BBC’s website as an upmarket area of Washington DC…but I feel compelled for the record to state that it is also the Gay quarter of DC. Not saying Trey was in the words of the Fleetwood Mac song; lookin out for love. Heaven forfend, he’s a married man and a fine young conservative. His naïve goodness would have meant he would have been completely unaware he was in the Rainbow district of the district).

    Trey’s “mistake”, was to buy 3.5 grams of cocaine from a federal agent.

    But Trey is lucky, in finding himself in the most caring and forgiving country in the world….If you happen to be white, rich and male. The probation act, not life in Angola.

    It’s even been a positive experience for Trey.

    “However, this unfortunate event does have a positive side. It offers me an opportunity to seek treatment and counselling.”

    See the mistake has been a learning experience. Trey has realised he needs to talk over his problems with a caring counsellor and have hug. He has been denying himself the love he needed; instead filling the hole in his heart with vodka and cocaine, among the lonely men of Du Pont Circle.

    Now, to think of Trey’s automatic assumption, even demand of our forgiveness and understanding as hypocrisy, or irrationality, while he votes to cut food stamps, and mandates that those who do receive food stamps have their urine tested for the criminal use of illegal substances, and have them denied food if they do test positive for criminal activity, would be wrong. Trey is in a different moral frame of reference, no frame of reference is privileged but they are different. Trey has made a mistake, the food stamp recipient who smokes a joint has committed a crime.

    Now, a conservative republican would argue that moral relativism is nonsense. But they, something like Bertrand Russell’s Barbers Paradox, inhabit a frame of reference where moral relativism does not exist – which paradoxically allows them to be relativists without the guilt or acknowledgement, and shave themselves even though they don’t.

    A philosopher reaches a paradox in the road…And what then?

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