Fair denizens of the interweb, I shall, as ever, endeavor to be brief in today's submission. Ultimately, I am sure to fail. Already I've squandered three sentences; but I digress. What I would like to do is begin with a simple thought experiment for you:

Imagine your favorite vice, it need not be destructive or deviant (though it certainly could be if you like) - a fine ice cream treat, a good book and comfortable chair, chewing a hangnail, whatever you will.

Now imagine you have, by some happy accident, moved to a town in which exactly half the people share your favorite vice. Not too shabby, you've got immediate grounds for friendship with half the people in town. But let's say exactly half the people in this town have a favorite vice that is exactly that thing that annoys you most. Now here's the kicker - the two halves overlap, so half of the people who like what you like also do what you hate. Imagine also, that these are the only two factors that matter to you and everyone else in the town, and none of you are able to move out (remember, this is a thought experiment). So there are four distinct types of neighbors in this little town, and you're all stuck with each other.

People you like = 25%

People you should like but annoy you = 25%

People you don't care about either way = 25%

People who only annoy you = 25%

Well now your happy relationship with half the town has been reduced to a happy relationship with one-fourth. What's worse, there's a full fourth of the town that you really can't stand (those nail-chewing troglodytes!).

Now, imagine you are talking with some friends, one of whom is a politician - maybe the mayor, or on city council, whatever. Since you're all bona-fide members of the fine-ice-cream-treat-loving-non-nail-chewing sect in town, you feel comfortable expressing your frustration about the town's apparent propensity for munching on keratinous growths. “If only,” you complain, “it were possible to get everybody to stop biting their nails.”

Your politician friend perks up, “Why, all we'd have to do is pass a law against nail-biting. Only half the town bites their nails anyway, so it shouldn't be too hard, and then we could be friends with half the town, instead of only a fourth of it. What's even better, we wouldn't have to dislike anybody. The idea practically sells itself!”

So you and your politician friend set about devising a way that you can create a law that will effectively outlaw nail-biting. You recognize that not everybody who hates nail-biters necessarily believes that nail-biting should be forbidden, though. So you'll have to make the law seem fair enough to appease the ice-cream eaters who don't want to punish the nail-biters, since they bite their nails too. You'll also want to hedge your bets by making some of the neutral folks see the advantage of your law.

After long debate, you decide that you will paint society as the victim, in order to appeal to everyone's better motives. Nail biting is unsanitary, and passes disease, you will argue (whether this is true or not is immaterial, it is a reasonable conclusion that's easily believed). Even worse, you say, children of nail-biters will tend to bite their own nails too, making the next generation sicker as well!

Oh, the humanity!

So, with good victims to protect, now you need to appeal to fairness. Jail time will be out of the question, since nail-chewing is not currently a crime, and you'd never convince people that it's bad enough to warrant a stay in jail (at least not the first time you introduce the law). I'll leave the decision to you as to what is the best way to be fair:

a) require that anyone caught chewing their nails be forced to wear a bright red headband when out in public

b) require that anyone who chews their nails pay a “chewage tax” of $10/day any day they chew

c) distribute free nail clippers and files at the local department of health and in schools and hospitals, simultaneously running advertising campaigns that explain the terrors of nail biting

d) chop off everybody's nails and burn their cuticles so nobody ever has nails again.

Remember, you've been able to show that nail-biting is not only annoying, but is also harmful (the veracity of your claim is irrelevant, you only need convince people that it's true). You also can benefit personally from making fewer people chew their nails.

Okay, make your decision before you move on. Write it down.

Let's examine each of these possibilities now:

a) This is a social incentive against nail-chewing. The costs are low, and you do nothing to address whether people bite their nails in the privacy of their homes, but you certainly expect that fewer people will be caught biting their nails in public if they have to wear those stupid red headbands. You won't make any more friends this way, but you'll be less annoyed all the time.

b) This is an economic incentive against the habit. You'll bring in lots of revenue, which could be used to fund the schools, or pay for a plan like c). Of course, some people will be able to afford the tax and keep on chewing, but the majority of people can't spare an extra $3650 per year, so they might rein in the habit. Then again, they might just cut back on public chewing.

c) This is a negative social incentive like a), but is cleverly disguised as a social-benefit program. The program will probably cost money, and is unlikely to be helpful on its own. However, it's easy to argue the upside of providing free services that address a sinister issue like fingernail-chewing. It's also hardest to call unfair, as it leaves nail-chewers with no excuse for not stopping their dirty habit.
You've provided ample free resources to help them kick the habit.

d) This is a powerful preemptive move. There's little room left for choice, but you've absolutely solved the problem. What's better, it's perfectly fair, in that it treats everybody equally. Your town can be happy again.

So what's the best way to address the issue of fingernail-chewing? Have you changed your mind from what you wrote down? You can change your answer now, if you like, but I'll present some downsides to each option, so choose carefully

a) This treatment is not perfectly equitable, as it treats some people differently from others (you might argue that that's the point). What's worse, this is potentially a self-segregating solution. You might find that instead of a town of otherwise similar people who variously annoy each other, your town will be divided into the red- headband side of town, and the no-headband side of town. While the division might not be that immediate, or that drastic, social segregation occurs easily, and is likely to be expedited by this sort of measure.

b) This option could be unfair because you are imposing a fee on a behavior that is perfectly legal. Certainly, people could avoid the fee by not chewing their nails in public, but if they have been chewing their nails for years and enduring nothing worse than the angry glares of non-chewers, it is more than a little arbitrary to suddenly decide that they should pay (literally) for their habit. Some people might even like chewing so much that they don't stop at all, despite the fact that they can't afford the tax. That could drive people into poverty simply because they don't want to stop chewing their nails. Maybe that's their fault - but perhaps the moral burden is shifted to you for having passed the law.

c) This is superficially a fair solution, especially if the costs are paid by a plan like b). Then again, that would mean a fair plan is funded by a less-fair plan, but issues of relationship like that are beyond the scope of this experiment. The real problem here is that taxpayer money is being put towards a cause that is of debatable merit, and the final result is the least effective of any of the options. This is a bit of a money-pit, and what you gain in fairness you lose in effectiveness. In fact, you and your politician buddy might only tack on an option like c) as an afterthought, in order to buy a few more of the “neutral” votes. It's unlikely that this is going to be your primary method for combating fingernail-chewing. It's just not dramatic enough, you know?

d) This is a brilliantly fair solution. Everybody has their rights infringed in equal measure. The problem is, most everybody would balk at the idea of state-mandated cosmetic surgery. To gain support for this sort of measure, you'd have to make the perceived risk of nail- chewing far greater than the tangible harm caused by forcing people to have their nails surgically removed. Good luck with that one.

There's another option that I didn't give you, of course; and you may have thought of it yourself. It's the option you never hear about in the press; the option precious few politicians ever embrace privately, let alone publicly. Yet, it is the one that is guaranteed to be absolutely fair, causes no additional harm to anyone, and costs nothing to implement.

e) You could do nothing at all. This is the “conservative” solution, and possibly the best one. The problem is, people thrive on perceptions of fear and urgent calls for change. It's in our nature - I suspect that our ancient ancestors survived as well as they did because they learned to be paranoid, angry, mob-oriented little apelings. If there's only one tiger in your primeval forest, you're not in much danger from it. But you feel a lot safer assuming the tiger is behind every tree, just waiting for you.

And when you get home safely, you can pat yourself on the back for being so wise and cautions. Nobody has to know the tiger was 30 miles away at the time, sleeping contentedly. So let's look at some modern “tigers” that we've legislated against, I'll even include the methods used.

Guns - b) (though there's a loud minority that really is pushing for d))

Alcohol - b) and c)

Illegal narcotics - b) c) and d)

Smoking - b) and c), in many areas a) as well

“Unhealthy” foods - c), often b) or a). d) is appearing as well (ban on trans-fats, anyone?)

The list goes on.

The things all these have in common? The extent of their public harm is open for debate, though the perceived harm is universally high. All of them have also been legislated against through outright bans, social incentives, or taxes and fines. And all of them are vices. I proposed chewing fingernails as an obviously innocuous example, but what if I'd proposed religion (a personal choice with historically destructive tendencies), or charity (a potentially economically damaging activity that likely benefits the donor more than the donee).

You'd want to string me up for suggesting we should fine people for attending church, or that we should ban all charitable giving. But religion and charity are no less protected by the constitution than are guns, or greasy foods. Many would even claim that at least some narcotics are protected by the constitution (though current law says otherwise).

The point is, next time you are getting ready to vote for a measure to limit the freedom of someone else because “they're harming themselves” or “you have to think of the children” or “it just plain annoys me”, stop and put yourself in the shoes of the people you're legislating against. What if our town wasn't legislating against nail-chewing, but against ice cream sundae eating? What if the arguments in favor of the legislation were just as compelling, but you happened to like eating ice cream? Would you want the angry majority forcing you to live by their rules? I doubt it.

And once again, I fail at brevity.

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