Updates: From my mailbag

I’m grateful (in theory, at least) to those readers who write in to keep me honest. Some recent instances (I’m suppressing the names because I don’t know who does, and does not, want to be mentioned):

— With respect to “non-economic” damages, a reader points out that loss of eyesight wasn’t the ideal example, because it has financial as well as non-financial aspects. A person who becomes blind may suffer reduced income and increased need to hire people to do things for him he can no longer do for himself; those losses are straightforwardly evaluable in dollars. But of course being made financially whole in that way won’t restore the person to the pre-loss level of well-being. That additional, non-financial, loss was my topic. So perhaps a better example would be a libel victim who is retired and therefore suffers no financial loss from being publicly branded a child molester. The issue of financial v. non-financial losses shouldn’t be crossed with the issue of compensatory v. punitive damages: there’s no relationship between the degree of negligence or malice displayed by the tortfeasor and the losses incurred by the victim.

Actually, there is one reason one might want to distinguish financial from non-financial losses. A tort system is both a regulatory mechanism and an insurance program. From a regulatory viewpoint, financial and non-financial losses ought to be treated alike; we want decision-makers to fully internalize the risks they impose on others, whatever the nature of the potential losses. But thinking about the problem from the viewpoint of potential victims, and assuming that the expected value of liability costs are going to be built into product prices, we ought to ask how much “insurance” those potential victims want to buy. In that analysis, non-financial losses may look different from financial ones because they may not be the sort of losses that increase one’s marginal utility for money. If my house burns down, I’ve suffered a big financial loss, and the amount a dollar adds to my well-being is higher than it was before my house burned down. That’s the logic of buying fire insurance.

But if I were in chronic pain, most of the things that can be done about it are relatively cheap, so the non-financial loss is fairly small, and the result of being in chronic pain would be to reduce the overall importance in my life of ordinary-sized financial gains and losses because the things that money can buy can’t do much about the basic problem. Similarly with the death of a child: it’s a horrible thing, but not something it makes sense to insure against, because it decreases, rather than increasing, your uses for money.

Not all non-financial losses are non-insurable in that sense, but some are, and that creates at least a smidgen of logic behind treating the two categories differently for the purposes of tort law. But an arbitrary damage cap doesn’t seem like the right solution to that problem. In fact, I can’t imagine the problem for which an arbitrary damage cap would be the right solution. Can you?

— With respect to Plato, I didn’t intend to imply that Popper and Russell were leading Plato scholars, or alternatively that view I attributed to them was restricted to marginal participants in the discourse about Plato; it is in fact more or less the received view. All I meant is that most of us absorbed our initial views about Plato such sources. (A passage from Russell’s assault on Plato was one of the readings on my SAT verbal exam.) Nor do I mean to diss either of them; reading Russell as a teenager was an enormously liberating experience, and I remember the thrill of reading Popper’s “On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance” in my freshman philosophy of science class. (I still find Popper exciting and convincing both on epistemology and on the Presocratics: to a greater extent than would be professionally respectable were I a professional philosopher.)

Also on Plato: I agree with the reader who wrote to say that the philosophical focus of the Republic is the psyche, not the polis. The topic is justice as a virtue, and Socrates proposes that it will be easier to discern justice in its larger vessel rather than its smaller one. But that architectural plan didn’t keep Plato from inserting some quite acute comments on political life, and (if I’m right) some hilarious satire on the “advanced” opinions of his time, into the dialogue.

Further on Plato: My use of the word “conservative” to describe Glaucon, and Socrates’s other interlocutors, was ill-considered. As a reader pointed out, they are only too willing to embrace various wild-eyed schemes of reform, including the abolition of the family. “Right-wing” would have been a better term to express their aristocratic and pro-Spartan political leanings.

— On racial preferences: A reader asserts that the system of racial preferences at the University of Michigan was in fact quota-like, because the weights in the point-score system were manipulated to guarantee a minimum level of minority enrollment. Since my reader had clearly read the documents, I’ll take his word for it unless and until I’m corrected again. I still don’t know what an “imprecise quota” is supposed to be.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com