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August 05, 2010

Fair Play

I'd like to recommend a book. If we just read material that supports positions we already hold, we don't give ourselves a chance to challenge our positions. And one position most of us commonly hold could use some serious challenging and in earnest. Let me quote a couple of pages from the book:

Fair Play, Steven E. Landsburg

A few years ago, I published a book called The Armchair Economist in which I argued that bipartisanship in Congress should be treated as a violation of the antitrust law. We don't allow the presidents of United and American Airlines to conspire against the public; why should we allow the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties to conspire? I got a note back from a copy editor asking whether there wasn't actually a key difference, in the sense that the airline presidents are conspiring to break laws, while the politicians are conspiring to make laws. I wrote back, asking if he had any historical evidence as to which of these activities was more likely to be harmful. My guess is that making laws is on average worse than breaking them. Th fact that this possibility never occurred to my editor is another instance of the kind of indoctrination I am talking about.

If you want to combat this stuff, you take the opportunities that come your way. For example, when your three-year-old starts asking about your radar detector, you have a limited number of options. Total honesty requires explaining that the sole purpose of a radar detector is to facilitate breaking the law. Partial honesty can be served by hiding the radar detector.

My colleague Alan Stockman faced this dilemma when his oldest daughter Gwendolyn turned three and curious. Alan opted for the hide-the-detector strategy, lest Gwendolyn get the idea that all rules are made to be broken. The truth, of course, is that some rules are made to be broken and others are not, but philosophers as subtle as Saint Thomas Aquinas have grappled with the question of where to draw the line. For Aquinas the key criterion was conformity with natural law, which is all well and good for a sophisticated adult, but Alan didn't think his three-year-old was quite prepared to grasp the concept of a natural speed limit.

So to maintain his daughter's respect for the rule of law, Alan lived without a radar detector for a few years. There would be time enough, as Gwendolyn grew older, to show her that between black and white there are many shades of gray.

I told Alan he had the analysis half right and half wrong. The part he had right was this: It's true that a very young child is likely to be confused if you tell her that some laws are bad while others are good. But it's wrong ot conclude, as Alan did, that very young children should be allowed to believe that all laws are good. My own inclination is to go the opposite route, by teaching the very young that all laws are bad. As those children grow older and more sophisticated, they can be gradually introduced to the advanced Aquinean concept that some laws are actually just.

You walk a thin line with these things. I do want my daughter to know that policemen are good, in the sense that if you are lost they will help you find your way home. But I also want her to know that policemen are bad, in the sense that they enforce a lot of bad laws. I've talked to her about this paradox, and she has no trouble grasping it.

And there are some things that I want to impress on my daughter even when they push the limits of her young capacity for thought. The massacre at Waco took place only days after my daughter (then aged six) had asked me how the government uses our tax dollars. When she walked in on the television coverage of flames and carnage, I told her that now she was seeing the answer to her question. And when she heard that there were children in there, that they were burning children, her eyes grew wide with horror, and I both hope and believe that she will never forget that moment.

That's from a book called, Fair Play: What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life.

Posted by Jeff at August 5, 2010 12:57 AM

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