Alarmism is Dangerous

I am a twisted father. When my children were in junior high, I would teasingly wake them with the question, “Hey, do you know what today is?” In their sleep-induced fog, they would blankly stare back at me as I answered my own question with a grin: “It’s one day closer to your death!”

Now, you may question my parenting, but you cannot argue with my logic. And in due time neither would my children, who eventually learned to respond, “Same for you, Old Man!”

As Benjamin Franklin taught us, nothing in this world is certain except death and taxes. The U.S. government never lets us forget about the latter. As for the former, it would appear agencies and legislators are trying to stave off death itself, as they seek to eliminate risk in the modern world.

Think about it. In recent years, the government has deemed it too risky for citizens to drink alcoholic energy drinks, purchase meals without calorie counts, smoke clove cigarettes, board airplanes without body scans, or play on Slip-N’-Slides. And that’s just the feds. State and local governments have banned smoking in public parks, operating a lemonade stand without a permit, and using trans fats in restaurant meals. Have we lost our perspective?

The sensible management of risks is one of the foundations of human civilization. From the earliest agriculture to ward off the risk of hunger to safety glass that’s made car crashes less deadly, the history of mankind has been marked by the development of new tools to make our lives safer, more comfortable and more fulfilling.

But it is the willingness to take risks that’s made those advances possible – whether the Wright Brothers trying their new flying contraption or, yes, Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm. Life is fraught with risk. That may be disturbing, but risk-taking has gotten us to where we are today. We try to squelch it at our own peril.

For the most part, people are pretty good at appreciating and tolerating risk on their own. Auto accidents kill more than 30,000 Americans per year, but people keep driving, accepting risk as a cost of mobility.

But when the tradeoffs are less easily understood, concerned citizens all too often look to the government to manage risk for us all – and that’s where trouble arises.

Genetically modified food? Label it! Bisphenol A? Ban it! Fracking? Stop it! The coal industry? Shut it down!

Which brings us to the mother of all debates about risk and government’s role in managing it – climate change. The United Nations intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently acknowledged essentially that global warming may not be the catastrophic emergency it’s been hyped up to be. So is the Earth warming? Probably. Does man have something to do with it? Probably. Will this be a bad or a good thing long term? Nobody knows.

And there lies the rub.

Alarmism is dangerous. We do not understand the benefits and challenges of a warming planet. Some tradeoffs will be negative for some people and businesses and beneficial for others.

So, what’s government’s role in mitigating the uncertain “risk” of a changing climate? Monitor it. Watch its effects. And never act in haste — remember the law of unintended consequences. That is good reason to be wary of the taxes, regulations, mandates and other schemes supposedly needed to “solve” it.

Managing risk is a tricky business for anybody. I understand that. But it is downright dangerous when political leaders and, worse, unelected bureaucrats try to do it on our behalf. The best scientists devote entire careers to accounting for scientific complexities and changes in the natural world, and they often make great advances. But society doesn’t work like a laboratory experiment.

In fact, society works better than a lab experiment. Next time you see a frightening headline about how half the items in a grocery aisle could kill you, remember people don’t drink 98 bottles of shampoo per day (well, at least most of them don’t). But “all things in moderation” doesn’t make for good copy.

“The curious task of economics,” noted F.A. Hayek, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Yet, trying to design a risk-free world occupies much of our lawmakers’ time.

Politicians lack the patience – and often the understanding – that sees wisdom in the humility of acknowledging the unknown. Instead, they weigh the tradeoffs between perceived harms and benefits and succumb to the tyranny of the urgent. This grossly subjective approach to risk management has led to policies that waste our labors in the name of “eliminating” uncertainty.

In other words, the greatest risk to our own prosperity is our own government.

By the way, do you know what today is?