Sunday, January 3, 2010


Lost in the hysteria around this latest bombing attempt is this, I think: We tend to treat “safety” (as in freedom from risk of negative outcomes for which one is not directly responsible) as a both unalloyed and infinitely valuable Good. If a given level of safety X, is a good thing, then X+1 must be even better, and worth paying for – even before we know the actual cost.

This, I think, is part of what drives a notion of security that is best described as chasing loopholes – since we a questing, in effect, for perfect security, anything that keeps us from that goal must be done away with a quickly as possible. But this stops us from ever questioning whether or not the measures that we already have in place are good enough.

Someone will always make the argument that being alive and inconvenienced is immeasurably better than being dead. And from this grows the argument that my inconvenience is small price to pay not only for my own life, but also for someone else’s life. But here's the rub - this is not an absolute argument. After all, it’s also true that I would feel a lot safer if I didn’t have to drive to get back and forth to work. But no-one considers this an iron-clad rationale for an entitlement to work from the safety of my library. And this is the problem at the end of the day - my definition of Safety above is quite incorrect. We actually tend to treat safety as a freedom from fear - we feel safe when we're unafraid. Thus, perhaps the problem is that we're not chasing safety - we're chasing a feeling of well-being. And how does one put a price on feelings?


Keifus said...

how does one put a price on feelings?

Well, I guess we could ask Madison Avenue. I'm pretty sure that manipulating the cost structure for feelings of inadequacy and well-being for was approaching the level of "Science" three generations ago. The government approach has no small element of product marketing too, whether selling security systems here, or arms and services overseas.

I don't know, man. I like to write off this bogus, expensive "security" as much as you do. I like to think I'm among those not thoroughly bamboozled by the Terrorist Scare. On the other hand, one of the main improvements in the human experience that I notice between Now and Then, or between Here and There, appears to be some reasonable expectation of going through most of your life without an excess of pain and grief. I'd argue that in the case of airport security, it's increasing our actual well-being about as much as Your Baby Can Read is out there increasing parenting skills.

Aaron said...

Good point. I, for my part, don't know how you separate out the idea of feeling secure from the fact of being secure.

But part of it is I think that there's a concentration on airports and airplanes because that's a THEM issue. Focusing on reducing domestic violent crime - which most of us understand would save more lives is an US issue. And I think that Them is always scarier than Us. Or at least we like to think so.