Montreal, December 15, 2010 • No 284


Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B.A. and an M.A. in political science from McGill.



Conservatives, Progressives, and Things
That Go Bump in the Night: The Politics of Fear


by Adam Allouba


          “Don’t touch my junk!” That four-word phrase has become a rallying cry for those who see the government’s latest airport security measures as one step too far. Does flying really now mean having to choose between a virtual strip search and an intimate inspection of your nether regions? How has it come to this?

          Roger Cohen ventures an excellent guess in the New York Times: “Allow [a] bureaucrat to trade in the limitless currency of human anxiety, and the masses will soon be intimidated by the Department of Fear.” Glenn Greenwald is similarly spot-on in noting that once the state screams “Terrorism!”, “fear levels are quickly ratcheted up and everything the Government wants to do then becomes justifiable in its name.”


          Fear of terrorism has become the primary justification for further restricting our ever-diminishing freedoms. It is invoked to justify measures both outrageous and petty. Never mind that the odds of dying in an accident are about a thousand times greater than the odds of dying in a terrorist attack – someone is trying to kill you and unless you hand over your liberty to the state, you’re doomed. While some people, like Cohen and Greenwald, inveigh against the dangers of such thinking, most of us seem happy to go along for the ride.

          Must it be this way? What if terrorism simply disappeared as an issue, either through victory in the war on terror or because the public just learned to shrug off the risk? Would that deal the fear industry its deathblow? Unfortunately, fear was driving bigger government long before September 11, 2001 and will continue to do so long after the memory of that terrible day has faded.

Oh, Those Crazy Conservatives

          Any perceived threat to physical security is bound to scare people, which makes it an easy way to persuade them to surrender their freedom. The mere threat of war still poses an enormous danger to liberty – even as we live through the most peaceful period in human history. And, of course, fear of terrorism has been a major justification for the erosion of individual rights over the past decade.

          On a smaller scale, fear of crime has turned Britain into a “surveillance society” and led the United States to put over 3% of its population either behind bars or on probation or parole. In Canada, we are spending billions of dollars on prisons to house criminals who perpetrate unreported crimes – even as the actual danger level continues to drop.

          Human beings seem to have a near-universal aversion to outsiders, and there is no shortage of policies that speak to those fears. From the US to Holland to Australia, there are always politicians who are happy to pander to xenophobia (apparently Canada is immune). The result is measures such as a costly barrier of questionable utility along the United States’ southern border and a €5 billion bribe to encourage a Libyan crackdown on illegal migration.

Oh, Those Crazy Progressives

          Many appear to take it for granted that fear is a staple of conservative or right-wing parties. The examples above are prime exhibits: most people probably associate policies that are “tough” on crime, immigrants and terrorism with that end of the political spectrum. Are those on the left simply hopeless optimists, with a deeply-embedded aversion to scare-mongering and a natural inclination toward appealing to our hopes and dreams rather than our fears?

          Hardly. While progressives would doubtless like to think of themselves in that way, the issues and policies associated with the left are no less grounded in fear than those of their conservative counterparts. They don’t merely believe that bigger government can advance the common good – too often, they argue that it’s the only thing standing between us and the end of civilization.

          The issue here isn’t whether more government is good or bad. Rather, it’s the extent to which fear is used as a justification for curtailing our liberty. Here’s a sample from former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich:

Congress has set such low penalties that disregarding the regulations and risking fines has been treated by firms as a cost of doing business … many companies will do whatever necessary to squeeze out added profits. And that will spell disaster – giant oil spills, terrible coal-mine disasters, and Wall Street meltdowns – unless the nation has tough regulations backed up by significant penalties, including jail terms for executives found guilty of recklessness, and vigilant enforcement.

          To clarify: when the law doesn’t threaten to lock people up, or at least to seize sufficiently large amounts of their property, it “will spell disaster.” Not under certain conditions or given particular facts. Not to a point, past which the cost in money and liberty is too great. Instead, as a general rule, the less freedom we have, the better off we are. How is Reich’s argument – which is quite a common one – different from that of a conservative who argues that without the unfettered use of secret wiretaps, full-body scans and waterboarding, we’d all be dead within a week?


More specifically, let’s take another look at xenophobia. Don’t some conservatives criticize open immigration for surrounding us with people with funny-sounding names who take our jobs and threaten our safety? Sure they do, but there’s plenty of anti-foreigner prejudice to go around. Exhibit A is the recent debate over the sale of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan to Australians, who were accused of having sinister plans for Canadian jobs and sovereignty. Then there’s the vice-president of the Canadian Booksellers Association who, after Ottawa permitted Amazon to open a Canadian distribution centre, warned that “deep-pocketed foreign-owned firms [could] come into Canada and wreak havoc on our cultural landscape using predatory cutthroat practices … that seek not to be a part of the community but rather to destroy all competitors.” Or consider what representatives of ACTRA (the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists) told the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry in April: foreign media ownership would be “catastrophic” and “allow [our] voices to be drowned out.” Canadian broadcasting is “critical to the health of our democracy and our unique cultural identity” and we can’t “let it fall into foreign hands.” So to recap: foreigners aren’t just a physical menace – they want to gut our economy, wipe out our culture and, oh yes, smash our democracy. And the government’s got just the cure for that.

"The issue here isn’t whether more government is good or bad. Rather, it’s the extent to which fear is used as a justification for curtailing our liberty."

Mother Nature!

Another obvious example of alarming people in order to justify the expansion of the state is the debate over environmental policy. Can anyone seriously argue that environmentalists do not use fear as their primary tactic? And that their solution is almost always more regulation? That’s not to disparage legitimate concerns about very real threats to the health of our planet. But from air and water pollution to habitat loss to species extinction to climate change, the consistent message seems to boil down to, “Either the government passes more rules or we’re all DOOMED!” We would be far better off with more nuance about the actual extent of environmental problems and greater consideration of free-market solutions that don’t involve coercion.

Health Care!

Yet another illustration is socialized medicine in this country, whose backers all too often make their case by conjuring up nightmares meant to trigger our emotions rather than by invoking data to sway our minds. Consider NDP Leader Jack Layton, who warned in a speech this summer that Canada risked “falling back to a more primitive era. When people were on their own. When folks sold their farms or suffered because they couldn’t afford care.” Or consider the Alberta Liberal Party, which recently obtained leaked documents whose “terrifying implication” was a government plan to privatize health care, which would mean “the end of public health care in Alberta and possibly Canada itself” and a new era of “two-tiered, American-style health care.” Got that? Either support our centrally-planned government system with its high taxes and tight controls on people who want to buy medical care… or poor people will die in the streets as the wealthy hire their own personal teams of physicians. In contrast, the argument that we need public medicine to reflect our caring and generous society may not be terribly convincing, but at least it speaks to our highest ideals instead of our worst fears.

Your Wallet!

Economic security is another common target for fear-mongers. For example, south of the border, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform – a bipartisan group created to formulate suggestions on cutting the deficit – has been widely labelled the “Cat Food Commission” because, as a writer on the Huffington Post helpfully explains, “any reductions in benefits will force so many older Americans to eat cat food instead of more expensive human food.” So the only options are a government program – which consumes over 20% of the federal budget and rests on uncertain fiscal ground – or… seniors eating gizzards and offal.

Everything Else!

There are countless other examples. Think of everything else that the state claims to protect you against. Workplace accidents. Unsafe food. Unsafe toys. Swimming pools. Smoke. Milk. Sawdust. Lousy tour guides. High prices. Low prices. Bad haircuts. Your front step. I could go on – and on, and on, and on. There are endless ways to meet the Grim Reaper, be moved closer to him or otherwise have your day ruined – and the government is more than happy to pretend it can shield you from every last one. It’ll just cost you a little bit of freedom.

The Libertarian Cure

          Despite the abundance of statist scare stories out there, there’s an easy, three-step program guaranteed to inoculate you against them:

1. Remember that bad things happen, and always will – and that the worst-case scenario rarely comes true.
2. Remember that government has no magic wand with which to legislate away bad things.
3. Remember that liberty is precious, to be surrendered only when and to the extent strictly necessary – and that it is not a commodity be thrown away in bulk just because somebody is screaming that somewhere, sometime, something bad might happen.

          Only the purest anarchist would insist that freedom should be absolute and unfettered, and no reasonable person would deny that there really are some frightening dangers that we should worry about. But if we get in the habit of following these three simple steps, we might at least pause and think about it before surrendering our liberties to those who fill us with tales of looming disaster – regardless of which part of the political spectrum they call home.