Homeland security

National Security Policy Is Just One Big Trolley Problem

Not everything can be a "top priority." We have to choose.


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When comes to national security, everything is a top priority. Bioterror, cybersecurity, airlines, public buildings, nuclear material—no matter the threat, there's a memo somewhere explaining in strident terms why it's the most daunting challenge we face as a nation. But when everything's a priority, nothing is.

Read more on that from me, over at The Atlantic today, in response to Steven Brill's cover story:

When an infinite number of bureaucrats are typing an infinite number of memoranda, the country will inevitably wind up with at least one report that correctly predicted any terror attack. (Also, we'll probably get a copy of Hamlet.)

Of course on September 10, 2001, there was a memo in a Federal Aviation Administration security official's inbox suggesting that the U.S. dramatically expand its Do Not Fly list. Of course there was a special commission that had been recommending for years the creation of a single coordinated department to fend off terrorist attacks. Of course Orlando shooter Omar Mateen had been questioned under suspicion of terrorist ties before he massacred people in a nightclub.

But the mere existence of those reports—the unconnected dots critics and conspiracy theorists lovingly accumulate and hoard in hindsight—isn't prophylactic. If everyone says something every single time they see something, the data quickly coalesce into white noise. If any person with a moderately interesting tidbit or clever analysis gets her report shunted up the C.Y.A. chain, the country would see very nearly the same homeland-security outcomes as if no reports had been written at all—only at a much, much higher price….

Virtually all of national-security spending is one massive, overly complicated trolley problem, the brain teaser that ethicists love to talk about when they get drunk together: People will die no matter what the government does. So how should policymakers best weigh action versus inaction?

Read the whole thing.

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  1. Amen! Sing it, my purple haired sister!

  2. I would just blow up the trolley car, which I guess is essentially what the TSA has been trying to do.

      1. Or, at the very least, rip the switching lever out and beat everyone to death with it so no one gets to benefit over anyone else.

        1. While yelling “Allahu Akbar,” which makes you a terrorist!

  3. Not everything can be a “top priority.” We have to choose.

    Crazy libertarians and their crazy crazy talk.

    1. As ever, there’s an Iron Law:

      If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

  4. (Also, we’ll probably get a copy of Hamlet.)



  5. Even if TSA security procedures have reduced this kind of risk somewhat, they have almost certainly not be worth the inconvenience and annoyance and lost productivity that has been caused by the process of taking those knives from law-abiding citizens day after day, year after year.

    A well regulated commuter, being necessary to the security of free air travel, the right of a passenger to keep and bear an Offiziersmesser, shall not be infringed.

  6. The agencies whose budgets depend on how afraid of everything we all are should not be determining how scary the world is.

  7. People will die no matter what the government does. So how should policymakers best weigh action versus inaction?

    Ultimately our decisions need to be guided by qualitative criteria. Respect for people’s Constitutional rights may be a big one of those.

    We could take this a step further and show that while something like safety is a universal value, it isn’t given the same level of priority by everyone universally. For instance, there are safer options, but I choose to ride my motorcycle to work every day because it’s quicker and I enjoy it. Still, even when I’m riding my motorcycle through traffic in L.A., I do care about safety.

    The thing that makes the trolley problem interesting (and its fatal conceit* from a public policy perceptive) is that there is no way to communicate with the one man to kill rather than the crowd of people to save. You don’t have the ability to ask for the individual’s permission or respect his agency. Public policy isn’t like that, and elections aren’t the solution to that problem. Elections simply mean the individual we kill will regularly be outvoted by the crowd.

  8. However, respect for our Constitutional rights brings a respect for the individual’s agency to the table–even if policy makers can’t speak to the sacrificed individual directly.

    I would also point out that leaving individuals free to make choices for themselves about their own safety priorities produces an optimal qualitative state. When we’re all free to make choices for ourselves, each of us can choose the level of safety that is appropriate for us given our own qualitative preferences.

    Just because not everyone chooses to maximize safety certainly doesn’t mean that policy makers should jump in and impose safety on those of us who choose to maximize something else.

  9. *Adam Smith on the “fatal conceit”.

    “Some general, and even systematical, idea of the perfection of policy and law, may no doubt be necessary for directing the views of the statesman. But to insist upon establishing, and upon establishing all at once, and in spite of all opposition, every thing which that idea may seem to require, must often be the highest degree of arrogance. It is to erect his own judgment into the supreme standard of right and wrong. It is to fancy himself the only wise and worthy man in the commonwealth, and that his fellow-citizens should accommodate themselves to him and not he to them. It is upon this account, that of all political speculators, sovereign princes are by far the most dangerous. This arrogance is perfectly familiar to them. They entertain no doubt of the immense superiority of their own judgment. When such imperial and royal reformers, therefore, condescend to contemplate the constitution of the country which is committed to their government, they seldom see any thing so wrong in it as the obstructions which it may sometimes oppose to the execution of their own will.”

    —-Adam Smith, ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments”, 1759.

    1. It isn’t just ethical questions of right and wrong that the elitists want to impose on us because of their superior judgement. They also elevate their qualitative judgements. There are no policy judgements that don’t have any qualitative aspect to them, and elitists who seriously believe they can make qualitative judgements on other adults’ behalf are insane.

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