I’ve heard this argument so many times. It’s cliche and annoying, but more importantly its wrong. A teenage kid mentions to an adult that he’s thinking about getting a tattoo. Then the adult points out how different his body shape is since he was young. “If I had gotten a tattoo when I was your age, just imagine what a mess it would look like now.” He might even have a picture of himself as a young lad with a thin profile, and muscled arms. Now he has a beer belly, a wrinkled face, and flabby arms. The implication here is that if he had gotten a tattoo when he was young, by now it would be so distorted that you’d barely recognize it. The young kid should think twice before getting a tattoo. Don’t do today what you’ll regret tomorrow. Is this a good reason to not get a tattoo?
Nope and here’s why. First, this argument ignores what economists call a relative cost change or an Alchian and Allen effect. If the kid admits that his body shape will change for the worse then this is a case for getting a tattoo not for abstaining from one. If your going to get old, fat, flabby, and wrinkled anyways then being old, fat, flabby, wrinkled, and having a messed up tattoo is not a very far jump.
If getting old with a tattoo makes you marginally ugly but getting old makes you ugly anyways, then from the perspective of the person making the decision today, it’s cheaper to get the tattoo once you admit to yourself that you’re going to be old and ugly. In simpler terms, if you’re eighty years old and you think that your tattoo will look silly when you take your shirt off, chances are you’re gonna look pretty silly with your shirt off anyways, so why not have fun while you can?
Second, if there are actions you can take to control the changes in your body type, then getting permanent skin art could be an attempt to credibly commit to those types of behaviors. Over eating, not working out, and overexposure to the sun are all marginally more expensive with a tattoo than without. So getting more tattoos could influence the way you choose those behaviors and maybe even effect your future body shape.
Now I’m not saying that every teenager should run out and get tattoos. All I’m saying is that this old cliche is messed up and probably encourages kids to get tattoos more often than it discourages them.
The insolence and brutality of anger, in the same “manner,” when we indulge its fury without check or restraint, is, of all objects, the most detestable. But we admire that noble and generous resentment which governs its pursuit of the greatest injuries, not by rage which they are apt to excite in the breast of the sufferer, but by the indignation which they naturally call forth in that of the impartial spectator; which allows no word, no gesture, to escape it beyond what this more equitable sentiment would dictate; which never, even in thought, attempts any greater vengeance, nor desires to inflict any greater punishment, than what every indifferent person would rejoice to see executed (p. 267).
–Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments
Me I’m one!!! And amongst good company with GMU faculty Alex Tabarrok and graduate Ben Powell.
Over the summer I attended the Social Change conference hosted by IHS. By far my favorite lecture of the week was by Richard Bell a recent Harvard graduate working on the historical and social significance of suicide in colonial America.
Bell, read a chapter from his upcoming book that focused on suicides amongst prison inmates on death row (no wonder I found it interesting). Bell used source materials that were both chilling in their own right and spun together in a profoundly subtle narrative. It seemed that Bell’s intention was to give insight into the questions “why so much suicide, why in this place, and why at this time?” by drawing focus to these under recognized sources.
I’d like take a bolder approach and discuss what I thought lay beneath the surface of Bell’s work.
First, America’s unique legal evolution left plaintiffs and defendants without a way to express their preferences over justice and penal sentences. As Sudha Shenoy likes to point out, America’s legal history is strange compared to the rest of the world. Social Historian, Lawrence Friedman has also noted that America is the only Western country to have begun its legal history with a fully state-sponsored prosecutor from the get go. Everywhere else went through early stages of institutions where criminal law was a more active process between individual citizens. Victims took criminals to court and voiced there requests for compensation in the courts. Dr. Shenoy informs me this was somewhat the case up until the mid 1980s in England. With police officers laying personal responsibility for pressing charges against criminals.
So when I heard Bell describe how death row inmates felt helpless and without options to the point where they expressed their last sense of control through suicide this legal history shot to mind.
Second, the self reported motivations behind the wardens, sheriffs and town-leaders of the time stunk of private interest motivations couched in public interest rhetoric. Bell found the newspapers and the public announcements of the town leaders. They would torture and mutilate the corpses of the dead inmates in full public eye. They claimed that the suicides were an attack against the civic order.
The Public Choice economist inside of me thought “those self-interested loons.” How better to protect the role of the current administration than to threaten the citizenry? The torture effectively said you can’t escape the state authority even in death.
The bottom line is I thought Bell’s empirical puzzle was a fascinating one, and his analytical narrative a compelling story that could be made all the more powerful with a pinch of Austro-Public Choice insights. This morning I read about two oddities in current events that seem similar. First, suicides of army members is at a 26 year high, and second there seems to be a glut of serial killings in the former Soviet Union as of lately.
When the settlers in the American West deemed their legal authorities too weak to protect their property, they resorrted to “lynch justice” to punish, without the formalities of a trial, individuals thought to be guilty of cattle rustling or of other acts the settlers wanted to curb and for which they wanted retribution…Ineluctably, some sort of lynch system will appear, or reappear, wherever the legal system of the community is not effectively enforced. (Footnote: Vigilantes and informal rule-enforcing groups also may appear when the legal system enforces rules alien to the communal sense of justice. thus, the original Sicilian Mafia and the legendary Robin Hood.) In the United States lynch justice is as yet a fantasy. (Footnote: In the movie Death Wish [released in 1974], the hero, finding the law ineffective, becomes a one-man avenger of crime.)
That’s right, in plain text in the second footnote on page 13 Haag references Death Wish!!!
I just had the pleasure of reading a brilliant essay by one of my classmates Geoff Lea.
I lived with Geoff during the last academic year. He has since moved on to New York to fulfill a research opportunity at the Foundation for Economic Education where he will be working on an intellectual biography of Henry Hazlitt and (to the best of my knowledge) a dissertation on the role of economic communicators within the history of economic thought.
I am fond of telling people interested in graduate school, that the majority of learning takes place outside of the classroom. Aside from attending optional lectures, seminars, workshops, and always writing (writing, writing, and more writing), your peers are an infinite pool of valuable information that can and should be tapped constantly. After knowing Geoff for the past few years I can honestly say that there is no other person who I have found myself in more total agreement with on the topics of political economy.
Congratulations on the publication Geoff!!!