Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

December 21, 2013

Behind a New Principle for National Security

As a member of the president's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, whose report was released this week, I was struck by some close connections between debates over national security and debates over environmental protection. In both contexts, many people favor the Precautionary Principle, which can lead in unfortunate directions.

In environmental policy, the Precautionary Principle means we should take aggressive action to avoid risks, even if we don't know that those risks will come to fruition. If the problem involves genetic modification of food or nuclear power, we should welcome precautions against potentially serious hazards, simply because it is prudent to be precautionary, and better to be safe than sorry.

But there is a serious problem with the Precautionary Principle, which is that risks are on all sides of social situations. If we take aggressive steps against genetic modification of food, we might deprive people, including poor people, of food that is low in cost and high in nutrition. If we ban nuclear power, we might end up with greater reliance on coal-fired power plants, which increase the risks of climate change.

The point is general. Whenever we engage in regulation, we are likely to impose costs. Increases in costs can create risks, including potentially catastrophic ones.

It turns out that the Precautionary Principle is incoherent, even paralyzing, because it forbids the very steps that it requires. Precautions are mandated by the principle, but precautions create risks, and so they simultaneously offend the principle.

None of this means that we shouldn't be concerned about genetic modification of food or nuclear power. The point is that we need to investigate the consequences of precautions, and some of those consequences are unlikely to be so good.

Now turn to the area of national security and to surveillance in particular. It is tempting to adopt some version of the Precautionary Principle on the ground that it is important to counteract serious threats to the nation, including terrorist attacks, and surveillance can be helpful, even indispensable.

Text Only
Opinion
  • Remember the pledge Editor:The county board chairman is not being factual with his recent comments concerning the Public Safety Tax Pledge made by the 2004-2010 County Board.First of all, the debt we were facing was caused by the foolish actions of nine board members of

    July 31, 2014

  • Back to the future for death penalty? The surreal national debate over the death penalty reached a climax of sorts July 23 in a prison execution chamber in Florence, Arizona. Double murderer Joseph Wood was put to death by lethal injection shortly after his lawyers went to the Supreme Co

    July 31, 2014

  • No Headline Provided House and Senate conferees have agreed on a $17 billion bill to address the scandal over poor health-care service at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The legislation is now on a fast track to pass Congress before its August recess, showing that Re

    July 31, 2014

  • Close the tax loophole that sends US corporations overseas Since we last overhauled our federal tax code, in 1986, countries around the world have lowered their tax rates, leaving the United States with the highest corporate tax rate in the developed word. At the same time, the system has become full of inef

    July 29, 2014

  • Israel and the U.S.: Whose survival instinct is stronger? There’s something darkly coincidental in the fact that the latest weapon to be deployed against the survival instinct of both Israel and the United States is an alleged “heartlessness” when it comes to children. The people of Israel are castigated in

    July 29, 2014

  • College cost isn't big problem for poor students To judge by this summer’s banner policy proposals, the most important question for higher-education reform right now is giving students easier access to loans. But evidence from Canada suggests those changes won’t address the greater need: Getting mo

    July 29, 2014

  • Ducks, geese a blessing I would like to respond to the “Geese and ducks causing problems in Veterans Park” article that was published in the Mt. Vernon Register-News on July 16, 2014. I must share that I do understand that at times there have been a great number of the Cana

    July 29, 2014

  • Money not always the answer I really have to stop and think sometimes. I challenge my thought processes when I write these columns. I am having a hard time with this one. It appears to me that every time a governmental agency or any of the entities that spend other people’s mon

    July 29, 2014

  • Teachers unions' destructive behavior You can always count on the national teachers unions to behave badly at their annual conventions, and they certainly didn’t let us down this month. In doing so, however, they let down many of their members, along with students who are working hard to

    July 26, 2014

  • Workers of the world, curb your ambitions A group of Democrats introduced legislation this week to protect low-paid shift workers from last-minute changes in their schedules. The idea fits into an intriguing category of economic activism: Not trying to lift low-paid workers out of poverty, n

    July 26, 2014

Twitter Updates
Facebook
Stocks