Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Tale of the Evil Car Company (Part 2 - Proposed Policy)

I have received several comments for my previous post, and I thank all of the commentators for the effort. I must say though, if only I set a prize for giving these comments, I would definitely give such prize to my brother, Prasetya Dwicahya, for his excellent comments (no family bias involved here). So if you have not read his comments, you better check it out before going further with this post.

Anyway, most of what I will say has already been covered by Prasetya's comments. Thus, I'll focus instead in analyzing his proposed policy to find out whether such policy can be the best option to be pursued by the government. Prasetya's proposed policy is something that we call as the freedom of choice policy which is in line with the concept of free market and pareto efficiency (a condition where as a result of the policy, some individuals are made "better off" without making any individual to be "worse off"). People is free to choose whether they want to use the car without the safety device or bear an additional costs in order to install the safety device. The company is free to produce its products (even if there is a defect) provided that it discloses all material information to the public so that people can make an informed decision and the company can reduce its marginal costs. And the Government has the role to enforce the law to ensure that the company will pay the expected compensation to any victim of the car due to the unavailability of the safety device .

Theoretically, this can be a win-win solution that promotes efficiency to the maximum. With this kind of policy, the costs of legal enforcement by the government would not be too expensive (assuming that the rate of accident is low in accordance with the probability that has been set out by the company), the company will not be burdened with huge additional costs, and the people will have many options to choose in order to maximize their utility and preference (i.e. getting an absolutely safe car or playing with the laws of probabilities for a huge jackpot). But it seems this is too good to be true. Or isn't it?  Or do you think this idea disgusts you, that it is a morally reprehensible choice? I mean, how do you even sure about letting people take a bet with their life in the line, even though the probability is very small?

In practice, we let people take this kind of risk all the time. We know smoking is dangerous, yet we are not able to prohibit people from doing it. And suppose you say that there is a huge interest group behind smoking activities, there is even a better example which is more similar to the above car case. We know overeating and poor exercise are a good recipe for health problems and they also increase the probability of getting caught by various diseases, including heart attack. Yet, I bet that the government will not issue any law that prohibits people from overeating and force them to exercise routinely. My main question, if we care about our people (like in the case of the automobile company), why don't we just choose the path of regulating people's daily life? There are many answers to that: the enforcement costs will be too big, it's an invasion to people's privacy, it's another form of "big brother"/dictatorship, etc. Now, if we can give those lines of arguments to the overeating problem, shouldn't we take the same position for the problematic car?            

What I would further argue is this, the above proposed policy that respects the element of freedom can potentially be the best option for the automobile case in any possible way. Let us tweak the case a little bit. Suppose now the probability of having an accident due to the unavailability of safety device is 80%, meaning that from 2,500,000 cars, 2,000,000 cars will go haywire. Will our proposed policy save the problem? Or should the government forces the automobile company to install the device? I would say there is no need for the government to do that. Using a simple costs and benefit analysis, the company will definitely realize that the costs of not having such safety device will be too big to be borne by the company. In this case, their best option is to install the safety device.

Now, another tweak. Suppose the costs of installing the safety device is not US$10 per car, but US$100,000 dollar. Will our proposed policy work? I bet yes. In this case, the marginal costs of producing the car (i.e. the costs of producing an additional unit of the car) will defeat its marginal benefits. Simply saying, the automobile company will never produce the car in the first place.

Having said the above, I need to put a caveat. Our world is very complex and a solution for a problem may not work for another problem. What I want to show here is how economics can be used as a handy tool in formulating our laws and policy. I'll continue to use this theme for my next articles and hopefully we can try to apply it in different cases with different policies. One thing for sure, this exercise should be fun.

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