Standing on Principle
I am continually amazed by the rhetorical use of principle and probability. States’ rights are a perfect example. To begin with, this concept first evolved as a tactic to protect the rights of slave owners, hardly a noble objective. Since then, it has become almost synonymous with freedom. States should have the right to determine who can and cannot get married. The federal government has no business sticking its nose into such matters. On the other hand, states’ right to legislate on marijuana use is routinely overruled. Similarly, states’ right to control business abuses, such as the spreading of pollution, are routinely overruled by Congress, including strong upholders of states’ rights.
The probability of somebody being injured by a consumer product or an industrial process, such as fracking, are typically dismissed out of hand. On the other hand, protection against terrorism is treated differently. Richard Cheney offers an excellent example of that approach: “If there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as if it is a certainty in terms of our response,” Cheney said.” Of course, the kind of actions that Cheney proposed greatly increase the probability of terrorism, which might be desirable in the sense that it offers a welcome pretext to build up the bureaucratic powers justified by such threats.
Appeals to probability are especially interesting because of the ease with which measures of likelihood can be easily manipulated. Here is one of my favorite examples concerns Richard Thaler’s measure of the value of a statistical life, a measure that Thaler soon realized was a wildly underestimated. This underestimation, meant that the cost-benefit analysis of workers’ protection was far more likely to prove unfavorable. Here is a snippet from my Invisible Handcuffs book to show how creatively such analysis could be applied:
“John D. Graham, a fervent opponent of regulation, who became President George W. Bush’s head of the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, even went so far as to claim that spending money on regulations instead of vaccinating children is tantamount to “statistical murder.” Ironically, I know of no case when the anti-regulators came out in support of any program to actually vaccinate children, perhaps preferring to be able to recycle vaccination as a straw man to wield against all regulation.”