Sunday, October 13, 2013

Odd Hedges Against Modern Worst-Case Scenarios

File this one under “it’s probably still a bad idea, but it’s not clear exactly why”.

The idea of a hedge is to take steps that are (typically) costly today in order to get better payouts in bad states of the world. Unemployment insurance and health insurance are classic ones, well understood by most people.

But there are plenty of other disasters in life that people don’t think much about how to hedge.

There are, for instance, plenty of possible states of the world where civil society breaks down altogether. Frankly, the best argument for gun ownership is for the eventuality of some extended civil emergency where government disappears for weeks or months on end. If the police aren’t coming to save you any more, you’ll probably wish you’d bought that shotgun. And antibiotics. And water. Lots and lots of water. You’re laughing at the preppers now, but that’s to be expected – until the disaster comes, they’re the weirdos buying insurance that never pays out.

The most unorthodox life hedge that I’ve been musing about (only in abstract terms, of course) is that of faking low level symptoms of mental illness. Go to a doctor, and complain that you’ve been hearing voices. They’re not saying alarming or violent things, just other voices in your head. When you get referred to a psych, they can disappear. Maybe they come up again in a few years. Or if you’re worried about appearing crazy, complain about chronic sleepwalking and other dissociative states. 

What, you’re probably wondering, is this a hedge for?

Credibly establishing an insanity defense if you’re charged with a serious crime, particularly a capital crime.

Courts have a good ability to sniff out people who are bogusly claiming insanity to get out of prison sentences. It’s no good to just claim after the fact that you were mad. But if there’s a paper trail of psych evaluations starting several years earlier, it becomes much easier to run an insanity defense.

Obviously, as any good lawyer will tell you (and as I've written about before), you generally don’t want to plead insanity, since this means getting locked up in a psych ward forever, which may or may not be better than getting locked up in prison forever. It probably is better than the chair, though.

That’s where sleepwalking comes in. Some jurisdictions will accept various dissociative states (like sleepwalking, being concussed, that kind of thing) as indicating a lack of intent, but not indicating enough craziness to get you institutionalised. I don’t know how likely this is to work, but it’s a possibility.

Of course, the down side is that you will have a medical history of mental illness, which might cause all sorts of problems I don't understand. That said, for better or worse (and it's often for worse), modern society is reluctant to forcibly institutionalise mentally ill people who haven't committed a crime and aren't an immediate threat to other people's safety, so I don't know how big the costs of being diagnosed as schizophrenic would actually be. Of course, after you're charged, all bets are off.

These actions fulfill the big point of the hedge – if you find yourself being charged with a capital crime, you may well wish you’d done it. I personally doubt this will ever happen to me, so the chance of it paying off is low, and the potential other costs of being diagnosed as mentally ill are large. So it’s probably a bad idea. Plus, I don't want to lie in general, let alone commit fraud, so I wouldn't be doing it in any case. But it’s still interesting to think about.

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