Incentives Matter

Right now, local, state and federal governments are closing schools and curtailing civil liberties in what will likely turn out to be a vain attempt to curb the spread of swine flu.  For those, like me, who are shaking their heads at some of the unbelievable over-reaction going on in government in response to swine flu, we should not be surprised.

We have trained government officials, just like Pavlov's dogs, to over-react to hypothetical crises.  Just as one example -- the Homeland Security department has a history, in disasters, of being both grossly ineffective and for wasting billions of dollars.  Which do they get punished for?  Sure, there are a few stories about Katrina waste, but the enduring legacy is the sense that the Bush Administration moved too slowly and did too little.

As a result, we see a massive multi-trillion dollar government waste-fest in response to a deep but not unprecedented recession.  We saw civil liberties thrown out the window in reaction to 9/11.  And we see the government issuing orders left and right to be seen as "doing something" about the impending flu epidemic.  Because politicians currently fear the charge of inaction far more than the charge of wasting a trillion dollars or curbing civil liberties.

Global warming alarmists lament that Americans don't understand the precautionary principle.  I would say just the opposite -- the whole government is run by the precautionary principle -- that near infinite prophylactic spending is justified by even minuscule risks of something really bad happening.  This is the recipe for bankruptcy.

Update:  And, right on queau, a precautionary principle link between global warming and flu from arch-alarmist Steven Scneider:

Stephen Schneider of Stanford University who paints a worst case scenario for global warming in a commentary in the journal, said the studies make it seem like scientists know where there's a solid danger line for emissions, when they don't. The papers acknowledge there is a 25 percent chance the limit should be lower. Schneider said that's a pretty big risk when the consequences of being wrong are severe. "If you had a 25 percent chance that walking into a room would give you serious flu, would you?" Schneider asked.

Here is the problem with this an all similar analogies -- they ignore cost, both in terms of dollars and individual rights.  Better examples would be:

  • Would you walk out of a prison cell into freedom if there was a 25% chance of catching the flu when you rentered society?
  • Would you walk into a room if there was a million dollars sitting on the floor for the taking but there was a 25% chance you might get the flu by picking up the money?

By the way, Steven Schneider is the hero of hard science who said this:

We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

More on this kind of post-modernism in the sciences here.


  1. ben:

    For global warming, I think the precautionary principle works the other way. There is a chance that massive government interference combined with certainty of its incompetence will combine to destroy civilisation. There are low-likelihood events with and without intervention, so I'm not sure the precautionary principle is any guidance in which direction to go.

  2. Anton Sherwood:

    How do you pronounce "queau"? Like "cue"? (In French it would be /ko/.)