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The Politics of Panic

Here are two pieces of evidence against the proposition that politics, through some miracle, turns people who are allegedly excessively irrational and uninformed when operating privately into creatures much more rational and informed when operating politically.

The first is this recent blog post, over at EconLog, by my colleague Bryan Caplan, inspired by the superb new Cato paper by John Mueller and Mark Stewart.  Note the minuscule risk to Americans of being killed in the U.S. by terrorists.  The chance of being so killed is 1 in 4,000,000 – less than half the chance of being killed by a home appliance in America.  Yet consider the huge effort, especially since 9/11/2001, to protect Americans from terrorists.  And let evil savages behead a few innocent westerners, video-tape the inhuman horrors, and make those videos public, and many Americans suddenly come to believe, against all fact and reason, that there has arisen a huge, existential threat to civilization – a threat that requires more warring, more military bluster, more bombing, more boots-on-the-ground, and more sacrifices by every American of even more precious liberties.

Sen. John McCain is among those who want more American boots-on-the-ground to stamp out the ISIL threat….  Which brings us to the second piece of evidence: Sen. McCain is calling also for an “Ebola czar” in the U.S.  So far, a grand total of one person has contracted ebola in the U.S., and that person is a nurse who had direct contact with the late ebola victim who came here from Liberia.

Has McCain no ability to do even plausibly passable risk assessment?  Seemingly not.

Conservatives who applaud McCain and his ilk should pause to ponder the fact that not only is government no more likely to be reliable and efficient and uncorrupt when pursuing ‘national defense’ goals than it is when pursuing the nationalization of health-care or the regulation of labor markets, but also that resources and effort spent to counter threat X are resources and effort that are no longer available to counter threat Y.  As horrible as any actual instance of X surely is, that fact is insufficient justification for increasing the size and potency of the armories and the bureaucratic legions to be leveled against X.


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