Scaring Ourselves to Debt

Via Gene Healy, this Regulation article by John C. Mueller, “A False Sense of Insecurity,” is one of the most important and enlightening things I've read in months, although it has a rather simple point. Mueller's point is that all things considered terrorism is not an enormous threat, and we should just calm down and get a grip.

Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.

Mueller goes on to argue persuasively that we are in grip of a very costly and very likely unproductive hysteria about terrorist threats.
Mueller's view needs to be disseminated:

* Assessed in broad but reasonable context, terrorism generally does not do much damage.

* The costs of terrorism very often are the result of hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reactions.

A sensible policy approach to the problem might be to stress that any damage terrorists are able to accomplish likely can be absorbed, however grimly. While judicious protective and policing measures are sensible, extensive fear and anxiety over what may at base prove to be a rather limited problem are misplaced, unjustified, and counterproductive.

This is right. And people won't like it.
I remember getting into a spat with an ex-girlfriend about the Beltway Sniper at the time of his (their) reign of terror. She was nervous about going shopping in Northern Virginia. I told her that given the population of the area, and the range over which the sniper was sniping, her chances of being shot were many many times smaller than her chances of dying in a car accident on her way the store. She denounced me for my rationalistic insensitivity to her fear. Such is the nature of our problem.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

6 thoughts

  1. I fear Clark glosses over why other social scientists actually enjoy the book. Even if you disagree about the consequences of laissez-faire or Polanyi’s anthropological claims, I think his point about the embeddedness of markets in society is still worth considering and is probably the main reason sociologists and others still recommend the book. I think Clark’s general aversion to institutional explanations for economic outcomes (see also his negative review of Avner Greif’s book) precludes him from giving this full consideration.
    Santhi Hejeebu and Deirdre McCloskey had a really interesting piece on Polanyi a few years ago in Critical Review. I cannot find a non-gated link online, but here is a response they wrote to a critic of their original essay.

  2. If you can’t draw a distinction between market economies and free market ones you really aren’t qualified to review Polanyi.

  3. The review might be “fun” but it’s not very accurate at summarizing Polanyi and so not very good at critiquing him, either. It’s bad enough to make me wonder if he’d really read the book or just was going on what he’d read elsewhere. The claim that Polanyi is ignored by economists is also very odd- I was turned on to the book by my first econ professor in college who was a big fan. Brad Delong assigns him, Stilglitz wrote the introduction to the new version, etc. It’s a weird review, based much more on a particular ideological take than a real effort to look at the book. I guess that can be “fun” but it’s not very enlightening.

  4. My big concern is Jim’s obnoxious pedantry.

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