by Adam Allouba*
Conservatives, Progressives, and Things That Go Bump in the
Night: The Politics of Fear (Print Version)
Le Québécois Libre, December
15, 2010, No 284.
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
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
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
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
Australia, there are always politicians who are happy to pander to
Canada is immune). The result is measures such as a costly barrier
questionable utility along the United States’ southern border and
a €5 billion bribe to encourage a Libyan crackdown on illegal
Oh, Those Crazy Progressives
Many appear to take it for granted that fear is a staple of
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are countless other examples. Think of everything else that the
state claims to protect you against.
Lousy tour guides.
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:
- Remember that bad things happen, and always will – and that the
worst-case scenario rarely comes true.
- Remember that government has no magic wand with which to
legislate away bad things.
- 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.
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.