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Politics and Probabilities

January 4, 2010

A continual theme in democratic politics on any nation-state scale is going to be assessing large numbers and probabilities; it’s simply in the nature of the game.  However, it seems to be a task the public is not very well-equipped to perform; recently, Joseph Stiglitz excoriated the public’s inability to learn the lessons of history with a devastating critique of what happens when governments let the public (i.e., the market) act on its own.

Similarly, the public is not so good at most cost-benefit analyses comparing the extent of an investment to its return.  When it comes to the surveillance state and fighting terrorism, the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t look so great, given the sheer numbers involved: the state would have to be over 99.99% effective at identifying terrorists (let alone the probability of many many false positives) in order to prevent anything from actually happening.  The costs that such surveillance would impose is totally ignored and almost never discussed or weighed in that rational cost-benefit way.

Indeed, the Hobbesian desire for total security and a willingness to hand that power over to the state makes the polity generate bad policy when it can exercise too much direct control.  There’s a reason the founding father’s entrusted the handling of national security to a chief executive rather than Congress, who can merely declare war.  As a point in case, a majority of Americans would favor waterboarding the Flight 253 suspect. This opinion is almost certainly without regard for any real returns such interrogation would yield; instead, it is motivated on the basis of catharsis and vindictiveness, and therefore seems a particularly unsavory basis for moral action.

As I’ve pointed out before, the public just doesn’t seem to be able to weigh opportunity costs effectively, partially due to an inability or “rational” unwillingness to compare large numbers and policy implications beyond the bumper-sticker level of distillation.  Let’s start changing that trend, shall we?  I’ll do my part by continuing to point out irrational calculations like how LED traffic lights may be causing more accidents and costing more money.  You just keep reading and sharing.

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