Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Worm Paternalism - A Metaphor

I was walking the other day along a footpath. It had been a damp day but sunny day, and there were some worms on the concrete. Most were dead, having either been squashed or dried out.

I saw one of them that was wiggling along, and decided I should try to rescue it.

Now, gentle reader, I tend to take a generally libertarian approach to people's actions. But there could hardly be a better instance of the worth of paternalism. Even the hardest of hardcore rational choice believers would not claim that every action of earthworms is likely to be utility maximising, particularly wriggling along a footpath after the rain. I mean, technically the moth might really really love circling around the light globe until it dies and the fly might enjoy getting electrocuted by the insect zapper. Of course, if you believe that, the Ghost of Karl Popper will hurl a copy of 'All Life is Problem Solving' at you and ask what, exactly, might falsify your theory. Plus, the evidence is all around you - look at all the other dead worms, killed for want of someone to move them back on to the grass!

So I decided to move one of worms.

Since I was worried about squashing it if I picked it up with my fingers (and, let's face it, it's a bit gross), I picked up a leaf and a piece of grass, and tried to maneuver the worm onto it.

This worm was quite lively, however. Despite my best intentions, it seemed deeply reluctant (for reasons that would not be at all puzzling to an evolutionary biologist) to go along with the plan. It kept wriggling away. I tried to move the grass underneath it to lift it up, but it would just poke the bottom of the worm (and looked not especially pleasant to be on the receiving end of).

Eventually, I managed to finally get it on the grass blade, and lifted it up to move it to the nearby grass. But even then, it wriggled off the grass, and fell about 20cm back down to the concrete. It kept wriggling away, and I let it go, feeling sad nonetheless.

As I walked away, I started to question the assumptions about the footpath being an obvious deathtrap. In particular, I didn't have any idea how many dead worms per square metre there might be on the grass, because the grass obscures them. If worms were dying at about the same rate on the grass and on the footpath, I'd still conclude that the footpath was a deathtrap, just because the evidence is more visible. This didn't make me completely change my underlying view (since worms can tunnel through dirt but not concrete, and feet are more likely to squash them on concrete), but it did make me revise it downwards.

I would still move snails off footpaths, as they can be picked up easily. I may even still try to move worms.

And yet...

Despite the best of intentions, I had merely managed to beat the worm up. Despite my apparently far superior understanding of the problem relative to the worm, it was no guarantee of any sort of good outcome.

The subject of this metaphor is 'Why the Government Should Meddle in People's Lives Much Less Than It Does'.

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