Wednesday, August 27, 2003

The Price of Freedom

I'm having another existential liberal crisis today.

I have been commuting to work along the same route for about five years. Part of that route takes me along a sparsely travelled four-lane divided highway that runs for about a mile and half. Along this route there is a single T intersection. Two days ago the Powers that Be put up a stop sign at that intersection. So now I have to make two extra stops when I drive to and from work.

Now, this may seem like a trivial gripe, but two extra stops a day start to add up over the years, not just in time, but in wear and tear on my car, extra fuel used, etc. But that doesn't bother me nearly as much as the sheer unnecessariness of it. In five years of driving this road ten times a week I have not once seen more than one car waiting to turn onto the highway. I wouldn't mind stopping if there were a reason for it (like traffic backing up onto the arm of the T), but there isn't. The only reason I have to stop is that someone in the government decided to put a stop sign up. (Actually, I don't really know that it was someone in the government. It's possible that someone put this stop sign up as an elaborate practical joke. But that seems unlikely.)

Now, I believe a certain amount of government regulation is needed. If you removed all the stop signs and all the traffic lights it would be a disaster. But I think we've gone too far, and not just because we have put up one too many stop signs. I think we have gone too far in a much more fundamental way. We seem to have forgotten the concept that freedom has a price, and part of that price is the assumption of risk.

We have become perversely risk-averse. Our attitude towards risk is that safety and security trump all other considerations. After 9/11 we practically trampled ourselves to give up our right to privacy in the name of rooting out terrorists by passing the Patriot act. After the Columbia shuttle accident we wrung our hands over the loss of the crew and wondered what we did wrong, as if the mere fact of their deaths was prima facie evidence that we had in fact done something wrong. People count the dead in Iraq as if at some point we will cross a threshold that will indicate that we did something wrong there too.

Now, I am one of the people who has been counting the dead in Iraq, and I also believe that we did something (actually many things) wrong there too. But the two things have nothing to do with each other. The mistake we made was that we attacked on a false pretense. That was a mistake whether the casualty count was one or one million (or indeed zero). Likewise, whether or not we did something wrong on Columbia has nothing to do with the fact that seven people died. Going into space is risky.

Just like driving a car.

Isn't it odd that when seven people die on the space shuttle we rush to "fix the problem" but when over 100 people die every single day in automobile accidents we barely bat an eye?

This is not to say that people don't care about car safety; obviously they do, and this concern has led over the years to significantly safer cars. But there are ways to make driving even safer. At the extreme, we could completely eliminate deaths in car crashes by eliminating cars, but no one wants that. The cost would be too high. The market weighs all the factors and we have collectively decided that about 50,000 lives a year is an acceptable price to pay for mobility.

But the calculus of the value of a life is much more complex than that. For example, we are only willing to put up with a few hundred deaths a year as the price of being able to fly in airplanes. Why the difference? It has a lot to do with the perception of being in control. When we are behind the wheel we feel as if we control the level of risk that we take on moment-by-moment. When we are in an airplane our lives are in the hands of the pilot, and God only knows what kind of a wacko he might be. (Never mind that the guy driving in the car next to you might be a wacko, or a drunk. As long as your hands are on the wheel you can handle any situation.)

(If you still don't believe the issue is control, imagine if a car company came up with a car that had no steering wheel. Instead it had a computer control system that was proven to reduce the risk of fatal accidents by half. How many people do you think would buy it?)

I think that's the main reason people are so afraid of terrorists. The actual numbers of people killed by terrorists is pretty small (so far) but the sheer randomness of it scares people. It is hard to imagine being less in control. (Of course, the potential for the numbers to get much larger is also a source of legitimate concern.)

Ironically, the principal casualty of our rush to avoid being out of control has been our freedom. We say we are a nation of freedom-loving people, but we seem to have forgotten what that actually means. And we seem to have forgotten that freedom has a price.

Freedom means that you can go where you want to when you want to, read what you want to, say what you want to, worship how you want to, vote for who you want to -- all without fear of the government knocking on your door late at night. But this kind of freedom has a price. For example, the price of freedom of speech is that sometimes you have to hear people say things that you find offensive. The price of freedom of religion is that you have to put up with people who don't believe what you believe. The price of freedom of movement is that you may have to deal with "the wrong kind of people" moving into your neighborhood. The price of freedom to read is that people could get ideas in their heads that you think are dangerous.

Or that are in fact dangerous.

The price of freedom is that individuals are free to be destructive. (And modern technology enables them to be destructive on very large scales.)

There are only two defenses against terrorism. One is to make it impossible to be a terrorist, but that can only be done by becoming a totalitarian society. The other is to become a society where everyone is free to be a terrorist, but no one chooses to be.

Personally I'd rather we worked towards the second option, but we seem to be rushing headlong towards the first by passing things like the Patriot Act, and putting up stop signs where they aren't needed.

If, God forbid, I should ever become a victim of terrorism or a car crash I hope that no one uses my death as a reason to drift closer towards totalitarianism (by, e.g., passing Patriot Act II or putting up more stop signs). I hope that people say that it's too bad I'm gone, but that's the price of freedom. It's a price I would gladly pay.

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