April 16, 2020 11:41AM

Getting a Handle on Threats

Over a year ago, the Cato Institute hosted a book forum with Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko, authors of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans. On that date, we also announced the launch of a new project on threat inflation (aka threat correction). In the spirit of Cohen and Zenko’s book (and earlier article), the project was intended as a comprehensive effort to highlight our relative safety, a one‐​stop shop that attempted to put the world’s various dangers into context. With sincere thanks to my colleague James Knupp and the web team at Cato, we have relaunched the project with more content and more features, including this lead essay that I co‐​wrote with John Glaser.

Project on Threat Inflation

Americans cannot go a day without hearing warnings of pending disaster. This project is a “one‐​stop shop” for those seeking clarity on threats to U.S. national security.

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The project builds on work that Cato had been doing for many years, research that clearly shows that the world has been getting safer. In numerous books (e.g. here, here, and here) and articles (including here, here, and here) Cato scholars have argued that human beings’ collective pessimism, and extreme anxiety about the dangers that seem to always be pressing in around us, was mostly dangerous and unhealthy.


In the midst of a global pandemic unlike any we have seen in a hundred years, it seems obvious that our fear of contracting a deadly disease, and concern about spreading it to others, has saved lives. In that sense, fear can be a healthy thing.

And I guess that is the whole point. An appropriate amount of fear keeps us safe. And different people assess risks differently. I’m afraid of dying when I hurtle myself down a snow‐​covered mountain, so I don’t ski any longer. But I’ve been riding my bike nearly every day since the lockdown began. I would be at less risk of contracting COVID-19 if I never left my house. Have I assessed the relative risks correctly? Who knows? Check in with me in a month and see if I’ve gotten sick–or cracked my skull.

This much is clear: many of the things that we have been told to worry about for years have, so far at least, proved much less dangerous than the coronavirus. For example, in March 2018, my colleague John Mueller and his co‐​author Mark Stewart observed “the death toll in the United States from Islamist‐​linked terrorism has averaged six deaths per year since 2001. And an American’s yearly chance of being killed in the United States by a terrorist of any stripe stands at about 1 in 40 million for the period.” We don’t yet know how many will die, but over 10,000 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 in New York City alone. It isn’t too soon to posit that some small increment of money spent on counterterrorism operations since 9/11 might have been more productively deployed researching infectious diseases. Perhaps we will wish that TSA agents had become emergency room attendants instead? 

Understanding why we fear what we do, and how various policies shape or respond to these fears, is the subject of this online event featuring Brown University’s Rose McDermott and Eugene Gholz from the University of Notre Dame. I’ll be moderating. Please register to watch live, or find the podcast or archived link later at the project on threat inflation page.