Election 2014

Spooky Politicians That Go Bump in the Night

The end of October brings children disguised as pretend ghosts and goblins, and politicians whipping up fears of supposedly real ones.


As predictably as falling leaves and longer nights, the end of October brings children disguised as pretend ghosts and goblins, and politicians whipping up fears of supposedly real ones. Democrats air spooky commercials alleging a war on women, on the poor, on teachers, on unions. Republicans speak of Islamic extremists poised to achieve world domination, or of terrorists wielding an Ebola weapon in the United States.

Both sides share the same message: the world is uniquely dangerous, and we're here to keep you safe.

To think otherwise—that the world is less dangerous—seems foolish. To state it publicly is presumed to be a political liability. After all, the world looks uniquely dangerous—especially if you focus on the dangerous parts. A new Cold War seems in the offing when Russia annexes the Crimea and sends its proxies into eastern Ukraine. President Obama's offhand remark that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was al Qaeda's JV team has been played back incessantly as ISIS has seized territory in Iraq and Syria. Ebola could be the modern equivalent of the Spanish flu of 1918 that claimed over 50 million lives worldwide. Or, for the U.S. at least, it could be more like the swine flu of 1976, which killed 1 person. More people died from the vaccine to prevent it. We simply don't know. But there are times, especially in the closing days of an election campaign, when it seems positively absurd to argue that the world is not very dangerous.

We can always use a little perspective, however, and campaigns shouldn't be fact-free zones. Of course there are dangers in the world. There always have been. And there always will be. But one's chances of dying a violent, premature death are at their lowest point in recorded history. The website HumanProgress.org (full disclosure, a Cato project) documents the many ways in which our lives are improving. And Americans, in particular, enjoy a degree of security and well being that our ancestors would envy and that our contemporaries do envy.

When we think of the litany of threats that Americans worry about, some are rather familiar. We still worry about war with major states, or about being drawn into wars with minor ones. We worry about the proliferation of mass casualty weapons—especially nuclear weapons.

 And then there are new worries, from cyberterrorism to threats to our environment, the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Why are we so fearful? It could be that the confluence of old and new threats contributes to the widespread perception that the world is more dangerous than it ever has been. True, many of these dangers have always been out there—the Roman equivalent of al Qaeda terrorists were the Assassins. Even nuclear weapons have been around for decades. But the combinations (e.g. al Qaeda with nukes, cyberterrorism) seem particularly new, and, thus, particularly frightening.

Plus our perceptions are inevitably distorted by probability neglect: we focus a lot on the nature of the danger, but misperceive the likelihood that it will occur.

At a minimum, we should scrutinize the claims on a case by case basis.

Take, for example, the state of the global economy. Some fear that a war, or the mere threat of war, could disrupt global trade and commerce, including the world's oil supplies. This concern, at least today, is the main justification for the U.S. military's forward presence around the world, a posture oriented around stopping possible threats before they materialize.

But the patterns of global trade are far more resilient than the pessimists envision. War between major trading partners in our increasingly capitalist world is highly unlikely, and, even if it were to occur, trade flows between non-belligerents would not be disrupted, or not for very long. While war itself has many horrific effects, the costs that Americans pay to stop all wars are unlikely to be outweighed by the benefits. Exaggerated fears of distant conflicts even prompt the United States to fight wars that pose no direct threat to U.S. security, and to spend too much on the military, which, in turn, weakens the overall U.S. economy by diverting resources from the more productive private sector to the government.

Too many harbingers of peril start from a presumption of certainty: "We live in a uniquely dangerous world, and things are getting worse. Therefore, we must do, x, y, and z." More than the supposed dangers lurking behind every corner, we should fear the politician's appeal for policies that we must enact.

There is a political harm, after all, in taking politicians at their word. Individual liberty is often threatened during periods of heightened fear and anxiety. "Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom," declared William Pitt the Younger in a speech to the House of Commons in 1783. "It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves."

One of his contemporaries across the Atlantic agreed. It was "a universal truth," James Madison postulated in a letter to his friend Thomas Jefferson, "that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger real or pretended from abroad."

A hundred years later, the noted social critic and satirist H.L. Mencken declared "the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary."

Such warnings remain sadly relevant today. And that is why we should work so hard to understand today's threats as they are, not as the spooky goblins they are made out to be.

NEXT: LP Senate Candidate Sean Haugh, the Scariest Political Ads, and Other Midterms-Related Independents Segments

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  1. OT: Game of Thrones prof has suspension rescinded:


    1. At first I thought you said “plot,” not “prof.”

  2. I really don’t get the fascination with Halloween. It’s great when you’re a kid, and I understand that it gives college kids even more of an excuse to be even wilder and drunker than usual, which is fine. But once you graduate you really shouldn’t engage beyond carving a pumpkin and handing out candy, unless you are doing something for the sake of your kids. Please leave the office costumes and extravagant decorations at home.

    1. I see that *someone* is dressing up as a grumpy old guy this year.

      1. If I could carry around an M1 Garand and yell at the neighborhood kids as part of my “costume”, my attitude might change.

    2. I’m going as a 66 year old man in comfortable clothes and sensible shoes. Sort of a old, male lesbian.

      1. Bean Counter|10.31.14 @ 11:02AM|#
        “I’m going as a 66 year old man in comfortable clothes and sensible shoes. Sort of a old, male lesbian.”

        One year, I was the ‘invisible man’ at the office.

    3. Maybe you’re right [Takes off Box of Pain box costume].

      You know what I’d love? A Dr. Zaius costume. That would rule.

    4. Because Halloween is a holiday to celebrate scary. And for whatever reason, people like to be scared. What that says about the topic of this article (and even most of us) I’ll leave to your consideration.

    5. Why? It’s the one day of the year when people are encouraged to worship Satan.

  3. Justin Logan of the Cato Institute also had a great piece recently that focused on why the fear mongering concerning groups in the Middle East is unwarranted:

    “Otto von Bismarck, Nicholas Spykman or any of the other great strategists of centuries past would be puzzled at the degree of interest Western elites give to the Middle East. The region is an economic dwarf. Its combined GDP?even including oil?represents roughly 6 percent of world GDP. Its population is closer to 5 percent of world population, and its military forces are similarly unimpressive…”


    A few years ago, Foreign Affairs published an article by Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko that put endless threat inflation into perspective:

    “The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history. All over the world, people enjoy longer life expectancy and greater economic opportunity than ever before. The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is the world’s most powerful…”


    1. Sometimes I wonder if, psychologically, humans crave a certain amount of insecurity and danger. If it isn’t supplied by every day experience, then smaller threats are exagerated to fill the void.

      I’m just blowing smoke out my ass, though.

      1. I’ve always suspected that most of the humans who were relaxed about threats got eaten, stabbed, or otherwise killed. Our ancestors, the survivors, were the paranoids who thought that every rustling bush contained a sabertooth cat.

        1. Maybe it’s not so much craving danger as it is being hypersensitive to it.

          I think the fears of many in the political class and defense/intelligence sector are sincere. Because they’ve been tasked with keeping people safe, they’d feel responsible if *anything* happened on their watch that it later turns out they could have prevented. 9/11 really drove that home. That’s an understandble feeling. The correct response is that liberty is more important than security, even if there is a risk of people dying. But people in the business of security aren’t going to say that, and unfortunately not enough other people are willing to do so.

      2. “The true man wants two things: danger and play. For that reason he wants
        woman, as the most dangerous plaything.”

    2. I’ve long thought it was of little strategic interest to the U.S. No idea why we can’t just walk away.

      1. Oil. Planes flying into buildings. Beheadings of American citizens.

        1. If we had avoided getting drawn into it from the start, terrorism probably wouldn’t be the problem it is today, at least not for the U.S.

          Maybe I’m naive, but I suspect that the ruling classes have more than enough incentive to protect their cash cow (oil). That’s true for religious ideologues, too.

          Unfortunately, now that we’re so deeply involved, the cost of getting out is too high for most to accept. The longterm costs are probably bigger, but they’re also long term.

          1. It would be a lot easier to resolve these conflicts if we were reasonably ruthless about it. Like in the old days. Anymore, our rules of engage,emt and fear of the slightest collateral damage have rendered us nearly impotent in many respects.

            The easy way is to make our enemies too terrified at the thought of retaliation. To fuck with us in the first place.

        2. I have no problem blowing shit up when we’re attacked. But we’ve been balls-deep in the Middle East for a number of decades for no good reason other than the Brits and French couldn’t handle it. If we stopped doing that because it’s not in our interest, then the craving to fuck with us might be reduced some. Mind you, I’m not saying leave because I don’t want to deal with these primitives, I’m saying leave because there’s no good reason to stay. If they continue to attack us, by all means, blow them up.

      2. Because we are the girl that picks complete losers as boyfriends thinking she can change them. And we are a sucker for underdogs.

        1. The Middle East can and likely will change. It’s just going to take a fair bit of time for these countries to become developed economically. However, I don’t think our meddling will hasten the process. It’s possible it may take longer than I anticipate, but history seems to suggest it will happen eventually.

          1. It will change – and not for the better.

            Better for us if we are disengaged, powering our cities with new nuclear plants, and running more of our cars on natural gas.

            1. Possibly, but I tend to be an optimist. I do think human history justifies such hopes to a large degree, but there are always hiccups. Also, I understand that there is no iron law that says it will always turn out this way.

  4. The article is excellent. However, the author should get his history straight. He states that “the Roman equivalent of al Qaeda terrorists were the Assassins.” Say what? Does this mean that long ago, the Romans had a terrorist organization called the Assassins, or that some group called the Assassins were a threat to the Romans (Empire)? Not very clearly written is it? The author should have stuck with H.L. Mencken’s statement or quoted him more.

    In fact, the Assassins had nothing at all to do with the Romans, either as a Roman organization, muchless a threat to that empire. A quick glance on the internet would have told the author that the Order of the Assassins (Nizari Ismailis) were an organization of fanatical Muslims who developed in the late 11th Century, and spent a lot of time killing other Muslims who they considered not religious enough. They were eventually destroyed by a Mongol Army.

    Yes, I know. I’m being picky. But if someone is going to write an article for public consumption, then why make a statement that is not true, or at least not historically correct. After all, politicians do that all the time don’t they? Reminds me of Palin’s “grasp” of history.

    1. Actually, the Romans’ terrorists were none other than the Jewish Zealots. And the Romans would through a phase of beating them down, going away, beating them down, going away, until one day they just decided to unleash the hounds and totally crush the opposition. Which largely worked until the empire started losing steam.

      Not advocating Roman methods, of course.

      1. Your statement is historically correct. By the way, that empire (The Roman) took a long time to “lose steam.” The western part of the empire fell to the Germanic Barbarian tribes finally in 476 AD. One can think of those tribes as the terrorists of the Western Roman Empire.

        However, the eastern part of the Empire (later called Byzantine) and centered in Constantinople (modern Istanbul), was the first Christian Empire, and lasted until 1453 when it was destroyed by the Muslim, Ottoman Turks.

        I wonder how long the American “Empire” will last in comparison? Guess we have to produce some real statesmen (like Cicero etc. etc. etc.). Do you think that might happen?

        1. “Guess we have to produce some real statesmen (like Cicero etc. etc. etc.). Do you think that might happen?”

        2. To be sure, whatever one might think of Cicero personally, he just feebly fought as the Republic died. It was well on its way by the time he was in politics.

      2. I am. Kill them all.

    2. Is it possible that Preble was referring to the disparate assassins that ended up killing a number of emperors (both in the Eastern and Western halves)? It did seem like he was referring to a specific group though.

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