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Legal Commentary: The Volokh Conspiracy
Do Politicians Have Good Incentives to Promote Airport Security?
By Ilya Somin
In a response to my post arguing that politicians have strong incentives to not enact good security measures before terrorist attacks and engage in ?security theater? afterwards, Orin argues that politicians actually do have good incentives:
In my experience, politicians have the right incentives in this area. The American public consistently cares very passionately about these questions, and a very broad range of politicians want to ?do the right thing? in this area. Different politicians strike the balance in different places, of course, owing to their different assessments of the threats both to safety and civil liberties ? as well as the different assessments of their constituents. But I think the incentives are the right ones.
The core problem is not incentives but rather the extraordinary difficulty of threat assessment. Assessing the terrorist threat requires us to figure out what an undetermined group of people with cultures and life experience totally different from our own might do in response to various policies enacted around the world using constantly changing technologies we barely understand enforced by a sprawling global bureacracy we can?t fully comprehend. That?s really really hard to do.
I agree that many politicians want to ?do the right thing.? And they would certainly try to do so if it were costless for them. The problem is that successful politicians are unlikely to prioritize ?doing the right thing? above staying in power. And, for the reasons I indicated in my previous post, politicians who want to stay in power have incentives to adopt perverse policies both before and after attacks.
Orin also claims that politicians have good incentives because the ?public cares very passionately about these questions.? I doubt that was true before 9/11 (when polls consistently showed that terrorism was not high on voters? list of priorities), and the passion created by those attacks has diminished since then, in part because of the rise of other issues, such as the economic crisis. But even if voters do ?care passionately,? they still know very little about these issues and still are likely to do a poor job of evaluating the information they do have. As a result, politicians still have incentives to engage in ?security theater? policies that make it look the government is ?doing something? about the problem, even if other, less visible, measures are likely to be more effective. Indeed, the more passionately poorly-informed voters care about the issue, the more security theater we are likely to see.
I do, of course, agree with Orin that threat assessment is difficult. At the same time, some of the flawed pre-9/11 policies and post-9/11 ?security theater? policies were sufficiently perverse that they can?t be ascribed to reasonable threat assessment mistakes alone. I also agree that it is important for officials to consider the facts. Unfortunately, I doubt that we really can consider facts in isolation from ideology, as Orin suggests. Facts don?t interpret themselves; we need analytical frameworks to decide which facts are relevant and why, and how they fit in with other facts. Ideology, of course, is just a fancy word for a broad theoretical perspective on how to interpret political facts. The most we can hope for is that policymakers do not ignore situations where their ideological assumptions are falsified by new facts. That task is made more difficult by the fact that most people tend to ignore or downplay new facts that cut against their preexisting political views. To the extent that they have poor incentives, policymakers are less likely to make a determined effort to combat this source of cognitive error.
Lastly, I think Orin is right to suggest that ?the best time to enact security policy is probably when an attack is neither very recent nor very distant.? Unfortunately, politicians have strong incentives to enact new policies in the immediate aftermath of an attack, when the public outcry is greatest, and the political demand for ?security theater? at its height.
UPDATE: I should mention that politicians acting on perverse incentives need not necessarily consciously be telling themselves that they are adopting bad policies just to get ahead politically. Like most other people, politicians are very good at convincing themselves that anything that serves their self-interest also promotes the public interest.
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