And the Sanity of Crowds

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An intersting paper from University of Chicago law prof Adrian Vermeule looks at "Libertarian Panics." The idea is that we're hardwired to make use of heuristics in assessing risk that, in our media saturated modern world, lead us to overreact to rare but highly visible events like school shootings or terrorist attacks, giving rise to "security panics." But, says Vermeule, we're equally susceptible to "libertarian panics" in which we irrationally conclude that small legal changes have launched us down the road to serfdom.

There's a prima facie plausibility to the psychological symmetry there, but has it empirically proved to be the case in the U.S.? Vermeule's former student Gene Healy considers the question and tears his old prof a new one. Gently, of course.

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  1. Hmmm, my gut reaction is to wonder if there is a way we can beef-up our security systems to protect us from people like Prof. Vermeule.
    I guess I’d be willing to let his free-speech rights be squelched, if by doing so my own are protected.

  2. The irony here is that Vermeule is, himself, attempting to cause one of these panics…a counter-panic. In effect, he is telling people to irrationally revolt against “libertarian panics” (why else would he write this paper?). I say that it would be irrational, because, as Gene noted, there is little to no evidence of this being widespread. Vermeule uses the Patriot Act (which will probably be renewed) and the American Revolution, as his anecdotal evidence…that’s the best he can do?

    Vermeule is, himself, trying to whoop up an irrational counter-panic. Clever, indeed.

    Unfortunately, the name of the logical fallacy at hand escapes me. Someone help me out—

  3. That would be the Vermeule Fallacy.

    When was the last time a “libertarian panic” led to an irrational reduction in the size of government or an increase in civil liberty? It seems to me that the libertarian panic is when someone does not participate in the security panic.

  4. The idea is that we’re hardwired to make use of heuristics in assessing risk that, in our media saturated modern world, lead us to overreact to rare but highly visible events like school shootings or terrorist attacks, giving rise to “security panics.”

    The thing is, other countries have such events occur as well. Yet few tend to respond as hysterically and fearfully as the US generally does. The American media probably plays a role here, but I think there’s also a cultural element at work.

  5. Vermeule is just making my head spin. What he calls a “libertarian panic” appears to be little more than common-sense belief that nations belong to their law-abiding peoples, and that those people should move and live freely unless, or until, adequate evidence exists that they’re breaking laws.

    Vermeule doesn’t seem to have a shred of evidence that a “libertarian panic,” if indeed such a creature exists, is a bad thing. Even if he could claim (hoo boy, as if) the Red Lake school shooting, for example, occurred as a result of super-civil-libertarian backlash…oh never mind, there’s no way to claim such a thing. In all these school-shooter cases, the guns used were purchased or owned by parents and guardians. The Red Lake kid obtained his weapon by murdering his tribal-cop guardian.

    Obviously, PATRIOT’s in no danger. So what’s Vermeule’s proposed solution? Prohibit parents/guardians from owning guns? And that prevents determined teen shooters (especially determined teen shooters who frequent neo-Nazi discussion boards) from obtaining guns HOW?

  6. When was the last time a “libertarian panic” led to an irrational reduction in the size of government or an increase in civil liberty?

    1776?

  7. Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, or starting a rumor about mad cow disease are a couple of ways to start panics.

    We here are trying our damndest to start a libertarian panic, but it ain’t gonna happen.

    Crying “Reason” just doesn’t get it done.
    The reason? (he he)
    The hoi polloi cares a hell of a lot more about its collective ass than it does its collective mind… so to speak.

    Or to be kinder, folks can understand carnage and death, but reason catches ’em like deer in the headlights.

  8. Panic is in the eye of the panicker.

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