Monday, January 16, 2006

Solutions and binding

Just an interesting point from p.21 of Tribe's introductory essay to the mammoth American Const Law:
the Constitution is not to be taken as a definitive "solution" to the deep questions of political philosophy, after the fashion of the arguments of Hobbes, Locke, Rawls, and others. [He completely leaves out Nozick, the nasty brute.] It must instead be defensible as a binding instrument--even as it is understood to be subject to critique and change.
He gives two interesting examples of how this can be thought of.

First, assume we're all pigeons. That is, consider pigeon behavioral experiments: if a pigeon pecks a bar, it gets a little, immediate reward. If it refrains from pecking, it gets a much larger but delayed morsel. Most pigeons peck. They peck even if they know they'd get more later: it just is too tempting. It's possible to design an experiment, however, where the pigeons can pre-commit to not pecking. And they do! This is much like locking the fridge so you don't raid it at midnight. Our utility functions are hyperbolic: they "bulge" out at the present and tail away into the future. If we can pre-commit to not engage in certain activities (chastity belts!), the "truer" longer-timeframe self is happier, even if this self pisses off the momentary self (chastity belts!).

A second, more accurate analogy (since the pigeon problem has a sort of deus ex machina--humans) is Odysseus tying himself to the mast to hear the sirens but not jump in the sea. Reminder to self: find key to that damn belt, and read the stuff on this Tribe lists.
  • Sunstein, "Legal Interference with Private Preferences", 53 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1129
  • Ely, "Ulysses and the Sirens"
  • Schelling, "Enforcing Rules on Oneself", 1 J.L. Econ. & Org. 357
  • Schelling, "The Intimate Contest for Self-Command", 60 Pub. Interest 94


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