“Fear Placebos” and Homeland Security

In the ongoing Cato Unbound discussion about how the government should respond to excessive fear of terrorism, Bernard Finel writes:

The cynical response focuses on continuing the sorts of grand, empty gestures we have already pursued since 9/11. We can continue to pack our shampoo in 3 oz bottles and ignore the color coded signs and tolerate the petty annoyances. Over time, fear will fade and it is unlikely that this unfocused motion will result in grievous consequences.

Finel rejects this approach in favor of what he calls a pragmatic one. I wonder if the cynical approach is the pragmatic one. A realist might say that we can never get the public to be rational about the odds of dying from terrorism, so let’s hold down spending and try to push it toward uses that have benefits other than counterterrorism, sort of like how fear of Soviet missiles justified spending on scientific research and highways. I called this the “fake it” option in a list of possible approaches to homeland security. This approach is dishonest and patronizing, but not necessarily wrong, especially if efforts to correct overwrought fears fail.

Apparently, Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is on the same page. Here’s the conclusion to a working paper called “Overreaction to Fearsome Risks” that Cass Sunstein wrote with Richard Zeckhauser:

Government regulation, affected as it is by the public demand for law, is likely to stumble on the challenge of low probability harms as well. The government should not swiftly capitulate if the public is demonstrating action bias and showing an excessive response to a risk whose expected value is quite modest. A critical component of government response should be information and education. But if public fear remains high, the government should determine which measures can reduce most cost effectively, almost in the spirit of looking for the best “fear placebo.” Valued attributes for such measures will be high visibility, low cost, and perceived effectiveness.

They meant, I believe, to include the word “it,” meaning “public fear” after “reduce.” So, in other words, fake it. It’s not surprising that Sunstein wrote this – his books, from which I learned a lot, head toward the same conclusion. But it will be interesting to see whether this kind of talk, shrouded though it may be in academic speak, gets him into any trouble now that he’s up for an important government job.

In other cost-of-fear-of-terrorism news, both Stephen Dubner of the Freakonomics blog and Bruce Schneier ask whether the diversion of federal attention from crime to terrorism since 9-11 helped cause an outbreak of financial fraud. They cite this New York Times article discussing the shift of FBI resources to counterterrorism. Dubner is unsure, but I say it’s a no-brainer that moving 2,400 FBI agents from crime to counterterrorism and the resulting 40 percent drop in financial crimes referred to US Attorney’s for prosecution caused more financial crime.

We will be discussing the cost of counterterrorism at the conference taking place Monday and Tuesday. Registration is closed because we’re full. But the event will be webcast live on Cato.org. C-SPAN will also be taping Monday afternoon.