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Policy Proxies

One of my pet peeves is policy measures that use one variable as a crude proxy for another. The classic examples are in the realm of gender. For example, some people argue that women should be excluded from the military, or at least from certain positions in it, because they are on average weaker than men. But if strength is what we're interested in, we should test it directly, so that we can hire those few unusually strong women and don't have to hire weak men to make up the difference. Similarly, if the purpose of marriage is to support child-rearing, then using the sexuality of the couple as a proxy measure misses out on infertile or childfree opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples raising children. Likewise, if your concern is really for child molestation, you should be charging people for child molestation, not using the broad brush of a ban on polygamy. And any boy who seeks out a male mentor because he needs someone who understands his natural aggression is going to be disappointed if he asks for advice from a mild-mannered guy like myself.

I bring this up now because I ran across two examples of the crude proxy phenomenon in quite different contexts this morning. The first is in Hugo Schwyzer's post about the fat acceptance movement. The standard retort to those who point out the unacceptability of size discrimination is that fatness is, if not intrinsically unhealthy, at least associated with unhealthy conditions. Thus, say the critics, fat acceptance entails acceptance of poor health. But as fat activists (including, ultimately, Schwyzer) argue, there's no need to use weight as a crude proxy for health. We can encourage people to ride their bikes and eat their spinach based on their actual exercise and eating habits, thus avoiding criticism of healthy fat people or ignoring unhealthy skinny people.

The second came in the comments to a Matt Yglesias post pointing out the injustice of Washington DC (as well as other US territories) not having any votes in Congress. In comments, Brett Bellmore argues that depriving DC of representation is necessary to keep DC's residents of having the double power of both working for the federal government and getting a vote in it. As I point out in reply, however, even if you accept (which I don't) the premise that federal employees shouldn't get a vote, depriving DC of representation is a relatively ham-handed way to accomplish that. On the one hand, many federal employees live across the border in Virginia and Maryland, where they do get votes. On the other hand, there are lots of DC residents who are not part of the federal bureaucracy -- college students, journalists, think-tankers, mechanics, grocery store clerks, homeless people, etc. If you're worried about federal employees voting, the way to do it is to make a federal paycheck contingent upon forfeiture of suffrage, much like Post Office employees have to give up their right to run for office.


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