Techdirt Reading List: Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous And How Danger Makes Us Safe

from the unintended-consequences dept

We're back again with another in our weekly reading list posts of books we think our community will find interesting and thought provoking. Once again, buying the book via the Amazon links in this story also helps support Techdirt.


One of the issues that we focus on quite frequently around here is the "unintended consequences" of politicians and regulators regulating in good faith. Some argue that many of these "unintended" consequences really are quite intended (i.e., regulatory capture creating barriers to new entrants), but in many cases the consequences truly are unintended. You have people trying to regulate extremely complex systems by doing a fairly superficial attack on one or a small number of variables, never even bothering to consider how that might impact other variables. Or, if you want to think about it more visually, if you squeeze the toothpaste tube in one spot, the toothpaste is going to just move around elsewhere (and potentially fly out and all over everything). With that in mind, Greg Ip's Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe is a fun read on such unintended consequences.

It covers a variety of different areas where there were attempts to effectively "regulate" safety, but which actually caused the toothpaste to shoot right out of the tube, and make everyone less safe (even as they thought they were safer). In fact, part of the problem is the false belief that we're safer, leading people to take riskier and riskier actions. It's not all that however. A second part of the issue is the added layer of complexity. Increase complex regulations and the focus becomes on loopholes, and hiding activity through more complex behaviors, that can mask the danger as well -- something that pops up in the financial system time and time again. While there are some who like to use the kinds of examples in the book to argue for doing away with regulations altogether, that's not necessarily the solution. But regulating for "safety" without understanding these kinds of unintended consequences can lead to serious problems. And, as Ip's book notes, it's easy to look for "villains" when things go catastrophically wrong, but it often is the well-intentioned people seeking "safety" or "protection" that create these unintended consequences in the first place.
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Filed Under: greg ip, reading list, regulation, techdirt reading list, unintended consequences


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  • identicon
    Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 17 Mar 2016 @ 1:25pm

    Meanwhile ...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Jeroen Hellingman (profile), 17 Mar 2016 @ 3:24pm

    Who has ever trekked to Preikestolen, a overhanging cliff in Norway sticking out 604 meters above a fjord might wonder why nobody thought about putting a fence on top of it. -- My own guess is: they thought about it, and concluded it would actually be less safe that way. It would require maintenance, might get damaged, and give a false sense of security. Just seeing the steep drop and the small boats that are actually passenger ships deep down below will make people realize there is an real danger to fall to one's death, and act accordingly.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2016 @ 5:22pm

    Thanks for making these reading lists, I wouldn't have heard of half of these books otherwise!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JustMe (profile), 18 Mar 2016 @ 7:19am

    Why is the Kindle copy $0.65US more expensive than the hardcopy?

    This is why I don't buy more ebook recommendations. The cost to transfer the bits of an ebook is negligible compared to creating paper and ink, printing, shipping, storing and shipping a physical copy (which doesn't even touch upon the environmental impact of all these books). I'd pay ...less than $3US for this book in electronic form.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 18 Mar 2016 @ 1:52pm

      Re: Why is the Kindle copy $0.65US more expensive than the hardcopy?

      I can remember when book prices were going up and up during the 1970s and 1980s. The primary excuse seemed to be the rising cost of paper.

      So now we can have paperless books, you’d think the cost could plummet right down again.

      You’d think shite.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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