Saturday, March 06, 2010

Bioshock and Quackery

Last night, I started watching a Let's Play of Bioshock. For those who don't know much about the game, I think I can say this much without spoiling the plot: The game takes place in an underwater city that was intended to be some sort of Objectivist paradise.

There, scientists weren't 'burdened' by ethics and developed some DNA modifying chemicals to give people superpowers like telekinesis or the ability to shoot bolts of electricity from their hands. Unfortunately, the scientists responsible apparently bought into 'greed is good, altruism is evil' rhetoric, and didn't bother with extensive safety tests. As a result, the city is now crawling with insane people swinging around monkey wrenches and climbing the walls with hooks and mad Science!-enhanced agility.

The city's leader response to the growing insanity? "Yes, people have died, yes, people have gone insane, but we can't abandon our ideals when they're being tested. The market is patient, and we must be patient, too."

This reminds me of all too many quacks I've heard from: "If it was dangerous/useless, people wouldn't buy it!" One of the biggest problems the caveat emptor philosophy has is the need for everyone to be an expert in whatever field is relevant to their purchase. The problem isn't quite so bad with simple purchases, but when it comes to our health, we shouldn't all have to be doctors to evaluate the safety and efficacy of a product. Contrary to what quacks will tell you, you are not born with innate expertise in your own body. The human body is a complex and intricate thing that was pretty much built to last a few decades. It's because people sought a deeper understanding than superficial pain/pleasure responses that we've been able to take 70+ years for granted.

Many people also tend to be poor at risk assessment. Someone who goes on a beach vacation might be more worried about getting attacked by sharks than about the much higher risk of getting into a car accident on the way. Anti-vaxxers, for example, are more afraid of the infinitesimal risk of exposure to trace amounts of everyday chemicals in the vaccines than the much higher risk of death by the diseases they prevent.

My conclusion: This sort of extreme capitalism, like Communism, could only work if the world was already perfect, full of well-educated, rational people. We need regulatory bodies made of experts to keep our food and medicine safe and effective.


Tom Foss said...

That last paragraph has been my general opinion of the Ayn Rand stuff I've read: Objectivism is great, for the Ubermensch.

It's also part of the point of Bioshock, I think. The Objectivist utopia failed because of its abhorrence of altruism and elevation of ultra-capitalist ideals.

James K said...

It's worth mentioning that Objectivism is merely one branch of libertarian thought, and a strange one at that.

For one thing, only the Randians actually consider altruism a vice; the rest of us are quite fond of it. In fact if it weren't for altruism, we'd need a lot more government than we actually do.

Milton Friedman (a different sort of libertarian entirely) discussed medical regulation in Capitalism and Freedom. He proposed a sort of regulation by insurance. Instead of the FDA or medical licensing, doctors and drugs would have to get liability insurance. The insurance company would have the ability to impose whatever restrictions it saw fit as part of its contract, so you would end up with a competitive regulation model, where each regulator loses money from lawsuits if they are too lenient or from lost custom if they're too tough.

Note that this isn't a pure free market solution (there is a regulation forcing doctors and Big Pharma to get insurance), but it's much lighter handed than the current system (though it places a real burden on the courts), which has loopholes for woo you can drive a truck through.

Bronze Dog said...

Yeah, there are relatively sensible Libertarians out there, though I see all too many of the crazy sorts.

I'd be somewhat hesitant to put it on insurance, but on paper there is some sense, since it's another cross-purpose group of experts pulling in other directions.

Dark Jaguar said...

I think the biggest issue I have with saying "market forces" will fix things is that, even assuming that the market WILL always fix things, it always takes far longer than getting active can get, and in the mean time people suffer.

Mind you, this argument gains no footing for the pure Randians, for whom the universal response is "so?".

Tom Foss said...

Yeah, it's like saying "life will adapt" or "evolution will work it out." Sure, of course it will, but in the meantime lots of things will die, and the ultimate solution might not look anything like what we've got now.

Which is why I don't understand the people whose response to Climate Change has been "oh, we'll get through it" or "the Earth has been through this sort of thing before." Yes, sure, I'll accept both, but it doesn't mean it'll be pleasant.

James K said...

Dark Jaguar:
It really depends on the problem and the market. Some markets are blindingly quick, and while bureaucracy may be the best way to manage a large organisation it's shockingly slow and frighteningly stupid. And that's assuming you get the solution right, most problems that still exist don't have simple solutions. And it's nearly impossible to unwind a government programme once its up an running, which makes experimentation nearly impossible.

I actually work as a government policy analyst in my country, so I have some experience in this field. It's true that there are problems governments can and should solve, but a lot of things should be left up to markets, or other forms of voluntary cooperation.

And you're right about Randians. Like Rothbardians their opposition to government is deontological, not consequentialist. I'm more of a Hayekeian libertarian, so I care about what works more than abstract principles of morality.

Dunc said...

"If it was dangerous/useless, people wouldn't buy it!"

I think "There's a sucker born every minute" is a much safer assumption... Even if your product actively kills your customers, there will always be another sucker coming along. Example: cigarettes.