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.

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