Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A common mistake

There is an initiative that will likely be on the ballot here in Washington State in November to provide "death with dignity" (if you support the measure, "assisted suicide" if you don't) rights to terminally ill patients.

While I personally support the idea that government should not prevent anybody of sound mind from deciding to end their life, my purpose in this post is not to discuss the initiative specifically but rather to observe what I believe is a very common error in how people think about such issues, particularly when one is against a particular practice.

In particular, when dealing with something that we find repugnant, our inclination is to support things that ban it. After all, if it's bad we want people to do less of it, and banning it will reduce that. I think that this is a non-sequitur. We should not confuse the desire for a behavior to diminish with a justification for it being illegal. There may be justification for banning the practice, but it must come from other sources.

I happen to support the right to assisted suicide, so I will pick an example of things that I oppose to illustrate my point. Smoking comes to mind. Ideally, nobody would smoke. But banning smoking is probably the least effective - and most freedom-reducing - mechanism for achieving this result. And frankly, it's not government's business to ban smoking just for being a bad idea. Alas, the legitimate reasons to ban smoking all derive from other principles, such as protecting one person from harming another (hence the bans in public places). But smoking is still legal in private locations - as it should be - because there is no legitimate reason for banning people from making decisions like this when they are not hurting others in the process, even if the decision is demonstrably stupid. (Heck, if "demonstrably stupid decisions" were sufficient to justify a ban, then Britney Spears should be locked up for life).

I do not believe that it is a goal of government to protect us from ourselves.

When checks and balances fail

Here's a disturbing piece highlighted by Slashdot yesterday. Basically says that our intelligence agencies would like the ability and authorization to more or less snoop on anything electronic anytime.

This (fortunately) appears to still be proposal rather than policy, but it's chilling. What I find particularly disturbing about this is the slippery-slope aspect. I am generally not a subscriber to slippery-slope theories (which usually involve conspiracy theories and border on the paranoid - just ask any gun owner about new firearm regulations), but I think there is a systemic reason why slippery-slope applies here.

The problem here is that there is no check on the degree to which the agencies charged with our safety may go, other than their own good judgment and budget. They are tasked with preventing another terrorist attack (among other jobs), and given the choice between doing anything and everything (whether constructive or merely cosmetic), or trying to be "reasonable" and thus failing to cover any potential security hole, they will go for former. After all, if a terrorist attacks and there was something - however minor or obscure - that they didn't do, they will have failed, but if they do more than is necessary or even reasonable and there is no attack, then they are perceived to have done their jobs.

Of course, they humans who are just responding to the incentives that we have placed before them, but the net result is that we are taking away basic freedoms and economic growth in exchange for "security" that is quite often strictly cosmetic. My favorite example here is the billions of dollars we are spending to have people remove their shoes at airports. This may well weed out the amateurs, but it is far too effort on the 99.9% of the people who pose no threat, and as such it is diverting money and attention from less visible but more productive approaches like better intelligence. And traveling to the US has become so inconvenient for foreigners that tourism is down dramatically - so we're hurting our own economy in the pursuit of the illusion of security.

Which brings me to the story mentioned above. I'm all for giving our government more ability to protect us, and I believe that better intelligence is key to that. But I have two conditions on this. First, per my rant above, it must actually be effective, which all too often it is not. But secondly, it must not destroy the very freedom that we strive to protect. As awful as terrorism is, I think it would be far better to have a free, open, and vibrant society that suffers the periodic tragedy of a terrorist attack, than to have a suspicious, burdened, invasive society even if that society did not have to suffer terrorism (though I doubt such a trade off truly exists).

Somehow we treat terrorism as "different" and have a zero-tolerance for it where we have a non-zero tolerance for other evils in our midst. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we should tolerate terrorism, or in any way excusing it. But if we reacted to terrorism the way we react to other crimes, we'd have roadblocks and strip searches and x-rays of every car entering Manhattan because - shocking! - there are murders committed there. We don't "tolerate" murder, but we don't let the existence of it drive every aspect of our lives either - we take reasonable precautions and reasonable risks, and do what we can to drive the murder rate as low as we can.

But with terrorism, it seems there is no rationality about limits on what we will do to drive it to absolute zero, even though I believe (regrettably) that zero is an unattainable goal.

I wonder how long it will be before they decide that in the interest of aviation safety that they ban all people from travelling by air.