Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Simple Truth, part 2

Hurf makes a good point below about safety, that is, that we can never perfectly achieve it. There is an important corollary to this idea, and that is that perfect safety is not only impossible but undesirable. Let me explain.

Something like 40,000 people die each year in car accidents. We could make ourselves safe from this formidable threat to our national security by outlawing the ownership and use of cars entirely and relentlessly prosecuting anyone who failed to comply. Of course a few subversive types would almost certainly try to hold on to their precious death machines, hiding them in barns and driving them in secret, or perhaps traveling (or even emigrating!) abroad to indulge their reckless desires. Tracking down the very last of these would require a few compromises in our treasured liberties but is any price too high for perfect safety?

Obviously this is a load of tripe and no one would seriously suggest such a thing. Yet, it is what we would have to do to make ourselves perfectly safe from car accidents. In rejecting the above plan we implicitly acknowledge that though safety is valuable, beyond a certain point it comes at too high a price, and given that we live in the real world where you have to pay that price, we don't want it. Car accidents are a trivial example, but this extends to nearly everything. You can eradicate an infectious disease like smallpox through well-executed public health policy. No public policy, no matter how well designed or implemented, can eradicate accidents, terrorism, crime, corruption, poverty, drugs, racism, sexism, or whatever the bogeyman of the day is. That doesn't mean that we want to have terrorism or crime or racism in the world, in and of themselves, only that given the constraints we face, we would rather live in a world where a small to moderate amount of Bad Things exist than pay the costs of reducing them further. Our experience with drugs, and alcohol before them, suggests that the optimal amount to tolerate may in some cases be quite large, when the costs we face to fight them are also large.

This is not to say that we should not fight terrorism, or crime, or whatever. It is simply to say that we not only cannot ever fully annihilate evil, that when the sacrifices are too great we should not even desire to do so. To come back to Hurf's context, we will not be safe from Iran whether they give up their ideology and weapons or not, so we must ask whether the safety we would gain at the margin is worth what we have to give up to get it. If we can achieve that by asking nicely, sounds great. If it means more decades of war and the further entrenchment of the American Police State, it's probably not worth it.

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