IT SHOULD BE BANNED: (it might be too much fun)


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Owen Smith the candidate for Labour leader called for a ban on departing PM’s giving Honour’s to staff. This made me shudder. Instinctively I knew this was a mistake. But crediting Owen Smith with some intelligence I had to ask my self why he would say something so transparently silly and petty.

He said it to win support.

Bans should reduce harm. Bans should be enforceable. I prefer bans that don’t impact me e.g. bans that limit my freedom and enjoyment and I think, the smaller the number of things that are banned the better.

The more things we ban, the more it cost to police. Bans that don’t reduce harm are useless as are bans that can’t be enforced and bans that effect me are inconvenient.

Anarchists would argue that we don’t need laws and that order will emerge naturally. I would argue that the was the case and the structures we have in place now are a result of such a system. We used to live in tribal bands that had extremely high murder rates and now a single murder in a western nation has a reasonable shot of bean national news. Things are ok.

It must be the case that some bans are effective while others aren’t. It must be the case that enough bans work, or society would have grown weary of banning stuff long ago. We would instinctively here the words ‘they should ban this’ and respond with a look of derision and then blow a loud raspberry.

We like fairness, so bans that prohibit extremely unfair things like murder where one party looses their life and the other party gets target practice have to be just. It is probably good to ban extremely asymmetrical situations

I asked Reddit for some examples of bans that worked. Bans that drove the harm or negative activity to zero. All the good examples that people came up with such as Lead paint, hunting endangered animals, Incandescent light bulbs, have commonalities. They effected a tiny number of people. There aren’t many murderers left in the world but there are even fewer light bulb manufacturers in the world and switching cost where relatively low. The Eu didn’t ban light bulbs or artificial light. They just banned one type of light bulb so the impact of the ban was small on the general population.

So: very harmful things done by a small number of people: banned.
Things you don’t like but are done by lots of consenting adults for mutual benefit will be hard to enforce and probably cause more problem or substitute the current problem with the new problem of criminalising lots of people.

The interesting cases are: ‘very bad things done by lots of people’. And ‘quite bad things done buy some people’. Violence and dubious business practices. Violence clearly needs to be banned on principle, even if it is unenforceable. In the absence of anything effective, you may as well use a deterrent and hope for the best.

As for things companies do to us we don’t like. We may have to accept that the state only has a limited ability to protect us. This of course is where my arguments fall down because I am effectively saying: ‘life will hand you lemons, deal with it’. That pitch isn’t a real electoral landslide winner. But as intelligent adult you and I know its true. This explains why politicians are so trigger happy when it comes to banning things.

We don’t expect to vote on the permissions granted to us at work by the IT guy. We understand that the boss lets us see stuff to do with our work and we are kept away from the details of everyone else’s pay. Even if we don’t like it, we accept that the IT Guy has a better understanding of how the system works and that he keeps us away from the stuff that could bring the business to it’s knees.

When it comes to the nation we are all experts on the formation of rules. We also tend to think about it like this: Does this ban effect me? No. OK: Ban it. The problem with that approach is that it infinitely expands the number of thing society is trying to do. It creates and asteroid belt of regulation around the individual and means that rather than standing on the shoulders of our ancestors we are berried under a pile of their corpses, unable to move or do anything. Hello, single digit economic growth rates!

On the bright side this world view, provides an easy way of spotting interesting topics of conversation. Any time you see an organisation, group or note worthy person change the position on the fairness vs popular axis you know there is going to be something you can say-loads and do-nothing about. Banks are making more money, fairness probably reduced. Something has been legalised, either it has become too popular to police, or we’ve learned it wasn’t such a big deal in the first place.

So good rules reduce harm and can be enforced. Good rules don’t just get rid of things I don’t like. The reality is that much like Han Solo we find our self in an asteroid belt of silly rules imposed on us by people who want to grab power and we just have to go for it and hope we don’t get hit:

Princess Leia: You’re not actually going IN to an asteroid field?
Han Solo: They’d be crazy to follow us, wouldn’t they?