SymbolicalHead's Blog

Everything has either a price or a dignity.

Division of Labour, ca. 410

[L]ike the workmen in the street of the silversmiths, where one vessel, in order that it may go out perfect, passes through the hands of many, when it might have been finished by one perfect workman. But the only reason why the combined skill of many workmen was thought necessary, was, that it is better that each part of an art should be learned by a special workman, which can be done speedily and easily, than that they should all be compelled to be perfect in the art throughout all its parts, which they could only attain slowly and with difficulty. – De Civitate Dei, St Augustine of Hippo

The Anarchy from Above

Anarchy is that condition of mind or methods in which you cannot stop yourself. It is the loss of that self-control which can return to the normal. It is not anarchy because men are permitted to begin uproar, extravagance, experiment, peril. It is anarchy when people cannot end these things…

Now it is plain that this sort of chaos can possess the powers that rule a society as easily as the society so ruled. And in modern England it is the powers that rule who are chiefly possessed by it—who are truly possessed by devils. The phrase, in its sound old psychological sense, is not too strong. The State has suddenly and quietly gone mad. It is talking nonsense; and it can’t stop.

Now it is perfectly plain that government ought to have, and must have, the same sort of right to use exceptional methods occasionally that the private householder has to have a picnic or to sit up all night on New Year’s Eve. The State, like the householder, is sane if it can treat such exceptions as exceptions. Such desperate remedies may not even be right; but such remedies are endurable as long as they are admittedly desperate. Such cases, of course, are the communism of food in a besieged city; the official disavowal of an arrested spy; the subjection of a patch of civil life to martial law; the cutting of communication in a plague; or that deepest degradation of the commonwealth, the use of national soldiers not against foreign soldiers, but against their own brethren in revolt. Of these exceptions some are right and some wrong; but all are right in so far as they are taken as exceptions. The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal.

We see this in the vague extension of punishments like imprisonment; often the very reformers who admit that prison is bad for people propose to reform them by a little more of it. We see it in panic legislation like that after the White Slave scare, when the torture of flogging was revived for all sorts of ill defined and vague and variegated types of men. Our fathers were never so mad, even when they were torturers…

Now the name of all this is Anarchy.

Eugenics and Other Evils – GK Chesterton

Just don’t call it a war.

“NATO has reached a new milestone with its air operations over Libya, having now logged more than 9,000 sorties. More than one-third of the missions were strike sorties, although not all end in dropping ordnance.” – AW&ST

No Means No (Part III)

Claim 3: If it saves even one life

The famous “precautionary principle” eventually gets applied to almost every security or health discussion.  Advocacy of absolutist principles like this one usually arise from inattention to secondary effects—a blindness famously pilloried by Frédéric Bastiat in his pamphlet What is Seen and What is Unseen.

Bjørn Lomborg provided a particularly good modern example in an interview with ICIS Chemical Business Americas of a campaign against cancers caused by residual pesticides on grocery store produce.  It is estimated that 20 people in the United States die yearly as a result of cancer attributable to those pesticide residuals.   Mandating healthier, organic produce was one suggested fix.  On the face this sounds like a win-win, and most the advocates of a mandate focus on this upside.  After digging a bit deeper it turns out the increased cost of organic produce is estimated to reduce consumption rates between 10 and 15%.  The reduced consumption would lead to an increase of approximately 26,000 deaths yearly because of reduced intake of vitamins, antioxidants, etc.

The application in this context is that it appears a large number of people, particularly those on shorter “puddle-jumper” flights or traveling purely for pleasure, will be discouraged from flying by the new procedures.  By no means am I arguing that everyone will do this, but declines of 1% or more wouldn’t be entirely beyond reason.  Most statistical studies suggest driving is much less safe than flying, usually by an order of magnitude.  It is impossible to estimate yet how many people are likely to die as a result of driving when they would have flown, but the numbers would suggest that the tally will be far higher than those saved even had a terrorist attack succeeded.

The latter is a hard pill to swallow, but there is a statistical likelihood of causing 10 or even 100 times (depending on the study) more deaths on the highways than will be saved in flying.  It is the aviation equivalent of the anti-cancer mandate that saves 20 but kills 26,000.

The numbers get even worse when one tries to examine the effectiveness of the new machines and methods, because of course we cannot (as advocates would like) count every attack prevented.  To evaluate its effectiveness, we can only count the attacks that are prevented that would not be prevented under the earlier methods.  This is a largely impossible exercise, but there is little evidence to suggest that the number is large.

We all draw this line somewhere.  Few would advocate full and true strip- and body-cavity searches of all passengers, even if that increased safety measurably.  Risk must be balanced against the costs of eliminating it.  Banning flying entirely would be the only measure that could be adopted to ensure that there would be no aviation related deaths, but almost everyone agrees that is too high a price to pay.  If, like NASCAR racers, every car on the highway had five point harnesses, roll cages, and driver’s wearing flame proof garb and crash helmets, driving would be much safer, but few people truly dream of that day.

A significant number believes submitting to nude pictures or strangers touching their genitals is too far as well.  Statistics are their side, as even with simple magnetometers and other pre-9/11 security measures, aviation safety far exceeded the risks we regularly assume by doing tasks we take for granted, such as walking up the stairs, driving to the post office, or eating at a restaurant.  When combined with the near certainty that more lives will be lost than saved, the application  of the “precautionary principle” here, as in almost every other instance, will do more harm than good.

No Means No (Part II)

Claim 2: They’re only following orders

The use of that phrase is frustratingly confused.  It is also a fundamental and dangerous misunderstanding about what orders are and who can give and receive them.  Quite simply, outside of the military or slavery there are no such things as ”orders.”   In the military, there is no option to refuse and no option to quit.  There are even circumstances when one could be executed for refusing to comply.  In that environment, the word “orders” fits quite well.

In no walk of civilian life, including the TSA, does that standard hold true.  If someone is asked to do something that he believes is wrong, or he does not wish to do, he can refuse to do it.  If it requires it, he can simply quit and walk away.  There is a glorious tradition as long as history itself of workers quitting because they disagree with their boss.  It can be done, and has been done, countless times in every walk of life.

The fact that someone wants to keep their job does not magically transform a request into an order.

There are other valid complaints to be made.  It casts the TSA as soldiers and passengers as the enemy, which as well as being wrong, can hardly be a healthy long-term view.  And, of course, “I was only following orders,” is never an excuse for illegal acts.  If the orders were illegal, following them was also illegal and the soldiers had an obligation (higher orders, if you will) to refuse them.

But the most fundamental error is that implies that there is no choice when there is very much a choice.

No Means No (Part I)

This is the first in a series of short posts countering common claims in favor of the TSA’s AIT scanners (“nudie scanners”) and “enhanced” pat-down techniques.

Claim 1: It’s not like they enjoy it

This is likely true as far as it goes, but that is not very far.  These procedures have been reasonably likened to sexual battery.  The application of “it’s not like they enjoy it,” to battery directly equates to asking the assaulter, “Was it good for you?”   Is that really to be the new standard we use for sexual crimes?  They only count when the assault meets the perpetrator’s expectations?

It will also only hold for the briefest period.  When people do not enjoy their job—which seems highly likely in this case—they do not tend to stay at it very long.  The next crop of TSA agents will have applied for their jobs knowing from the outset that it entailed the wholesale use of nude scanners and the groping of innocent passengers.  The people that apply for that job, knowing the requirements, are exactly the kind that do enjoy it.  No decent person would apply for the job knowing what will be required of them.  Who does that leave?  The indecent of course.

2010 [Election] Micro Commentary

The country trends left, but vomits Republican.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.