The Politics of Chicken Little(ism)

December 5, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared on The Washington Post (Online) on December 5, 2007.

Right‐​wing politicians criticize the environmental movement for its reliance on the precautionary principle — the belief that any possible environmental risk to health and safety should be met with decisive preventive action, no matter how small the risk or how costly the response. But for the past several years, hawkish right‐​wingers have been operating under their own version of the precautionary principle — in this case, that any threat to national security should be met with preventive action, regardless of cost or the remoteness of the risk.

This was the logic behind our preventive war in Iraq — there was a possibility that the Hussein regime was working on weapons of mass destruction, that their efforts would yield success, and that Hussein would then either use the weapons himself or give them to terrorist groups. Indeed, the whole of contemporary American defense policy is precautionary. We plan for the worst; believing that on weapons proliferation, terrorism and military rivals, we are better safe than sorry.

It is prudent to prepare for dangers. But it is also prudent to consider the costs of excessive prudence. This holds true for both the environment and national security.

University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein notes that the precautionary principle fails to acknowledge that decisions about one risk cannot be made in a vacuum. Because resources are always limited, efforts to reduce one risk take resources away from activities meant to combat other risks, whether through government programs or private investment. And because of unintended consequences, actions that address one danger often create new ones.

Consider asbestos. When people first learned that asbestos could cause respiratory diseases including lung cancer if inhaled or ingested, the precautionary principle justified a rush to remove the material from buildings. It later became clear that the removal process creates greater risk of exposure and the cost of removal is enormous. Because undisturbed asbestos in building materials poses no health risk (and greatly reduces fire risk), society is better off leaving asbestos be.

The illogic of the precautionary principle does not mean that states should not regulate dangers. But decisions about risk should be evaluated by cost‐​benefit analysis. That means considering the cost that preventive action would avert, the likelihood that preventive action will work, and the action’s cost. (Fairness dictates that we should also consider the distribution of costs and benefits — do the costs unfairly fall on one group and the benefits on another.) Uncertainty clouds this math. But rational decision making attempts to weigh all relevant risks rather than focusing myopically on one.

Since the Soviet Union’s collapse left the United States with no military peer, the defense establishment has justified itself with precautionary reasoning. Strategy documents like the Quadrennial Defense Review claim that the Soviet threat has been replaced by terrorists, civil wars, rogue states and a hostile China. Following President Bush’s preemption doctrine, the documents argue that the mere possibility of danger justifies preventive war and annual defense spending of over $600 billion — more than at any point in the Cold War even if you account for inflation. The strategy documents avoid weighing the risks that their policies confront against the risks that they create.

Specific policies share this fault. Only precautionary reasoning justifies spending heavily to protect every U.S. town from terrorism. Terrorists could strike New Hampshire. But the possibility is so remote and the utility of the spending is so unclear that the Granite State’s counter‐​terrorism funds would be better spent elsewhere.

Another example is national policy on prospective employees for U.S. intelligence agencies. Security agents go to extremes to make sure a job applicant does not serve a foreign power — slowing clearances to a crawl. As a result, intelligence agencies cannot hire the people they most need — people who often hail from, or have relatives living in, foreign hot spots.

In these areas, hawks claim that doves are reckless. Cutting homeland security funding to New Hampshire leaves Hanover less prepared. A CIA applicant might be spy. But hawks accept more risk from the dangers their policies create. The difference between hawks and doves turns on how they rate competing risks, not a penchant for risk or safety.

Why do we conjure up so many possible monsters to destroy, and then overspend to confront them? One answer is that our defense policies are made by politicians and organizations that benefit from precautionary policies. In American politics today, there are no powerful doves. In elections, Democrats usually track right on security issues to shift the political battleground to domestic issues. Both parties see rewards in preaching danger.

But if politicians do not check these policies, who will? Homeland security and military organizations exist to protect against particular threats. They do not weigh the total risk associated with their activities. Alaska’s Office of Homeland Security will not argue that safety would be better served by reallocating their budget to the purchase of snowplows. The Air Force will not tell you that no rival justifies the F-22. Experts in think tanks and academia hoping for political appointments and grants often follow politicians and defense organizations’ lead. The media, dependant on the government for stories and driven by the bottom line to alarmism, conveys worst‐​case fears.

On the other side, as Congressman Les Aspin once wrote, there is no other side. No one alarms us about alarmism. Everyone likes lower taxes, but not enough to organize against defense spending. Only a scattering of libertarians and anti‐​war liberals confront a bipartisan precautionary principle juggernaut.

Enlightenment won’t solve the problem; powerful interests that are hurt by precautionary defense policies will. In most cases, interests have to be dragged into competition. That requires institutional mechanisms — like the Office of Management and Budget — that pit risk reducers’ budgets against each others, that consider the safety value, for instance, of a dollar spent on health care against a dollar spent on defending Taiwan.

No formula tells us how to maximize safety. But skepticism — toward both what we are told to fear and the defenses we are sold to confront it — is a good start.

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