Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Phenomenon of "Panic!" Governance

Politics always goes through a period of ups and downs. But lately it seems things have been rapidly declining. Since 9/11, politics has largely been dominated by what I will call "Panic!" Governance.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that 9/11 was the start of the phenomenon of "Panic!" Governance. The Cold War era, for example, saw more than its fair share of government's playing on the public's (mis)perception of the dangers they faced. This video, for example, clearly illustrates this point.

But many things have accelerated, and intensified, the phenomenon of "Panic!" Governance. Dramatic and tragic events, ranging from 9/11, Katrina and the current economic crisis, coupled with sensationalist journalism and a public hooked on "Reality TV", have helped feed an insatiable thirst for near apocalyptic nightly news.

The three most obvious examples of this are (1) the war on terror (2) climate change and (3) the current economic woes. Each of these are real legitimate concerns, I am not suggesting that they are not. But all three have been vigorously championed by advocates who seek to make the case for "Panic!" Governance.

Three features are present in instances of "Panic!" Governance. Firstly, it is claimed that inaction will result in grave and serious harm. So if we do not invade Iraq they will unleash their weapons of mass destruction upon the world. If we don't combat climate change immediately the earth will warm to a level that makes human life intolerable. And the current credit crunch will lead to a new depression.

In all of these cases the magnitude and certainty of the harms are blown way out of proportion. Some may retort that exaggerating a particular danger (like climate change) is necessary in order to motivate people to support serious change. But distorting the facts like this caused many more harms, harms that outweigh those that will result from not tackling (1), (2) and (3).

In additional to exaggerated claims concerning inaction, "Panic!" Governance also involves pursuing action that is premised primarily on the desire to avert the proposed disaster (at any cost!) rather than sound empirical evidence concerning the cost-effectiveness of the proposed measure. So "Panic!" Governance creates a climate of hysteria that actually impedes serious, reflective policy-making concerning how to sensibly tackle the challenge in question.

And thirdly, because "Panic!" Governance creates a climate inhospitable to dissenting opinions, the measures pursued are not only ineffective, they can actually create further harms that are then characterized as "unintended" or "unforeseen" because the policy pursued was rushed and received little critical scrutiny.

And the combination of these three features of "Panic!" Governance- its inflated claims concerning the danger of particular problems, its desire for action of any kind (rather than sensible action), and its "you are either with us or against us!" mentality- result in many serious problems.

One problem with "Panic!" Governance is that by distorting reality in this fashion we ignore other, more immediate and severe, harms. Where are the nightly news reports on the 300,000 U.S. deaths a year associated with obesity and excess weight, or the 400,000 deaths a year associated with cigarette smoking? Where are the economists singing the praises of increased human longevity- like the fact that the increased longevity between the years 1970 and 2000 added about $3.2 trillion per year to national wealth in the United States? So the diseases of aging, for example, are far more immediate and pressing problems, and yet they will not make the evening news (very often) or dominate serious policy debates.

Part of the reason for this is that priorities have been hijacked by the "shock-and-awe" mentality of a population that suffers from attention deficit. We need to jump from one colossal disaster to the next... for the fate of humanity has become the latest and most interesting "reality TV show".

So distorting reality in this way means that we are unlikely to get support for causes that are very pressing and in need of attention. It's a case of the boy who cried wolf too many times. Indeed, this is precisely what has happened to the Bush Administration. Americans no longer believe him when he says that immediate action is needed to avert greater economic woes.

Secondly, once we distort the magnitude of the harm of a particular problem, it is easier to get the wrong kind of support for tackling the problem. When there is no time to debate or seriously consider the options, we tend to adopt a "any solution is better than none!" mentality. And this is most clear in the current economic crisis. "The bailout must be passed now!" "We don't have time to hear dissenting opinions, or to consider alternative proposals". And thus "Panic!" Governance increases the likelihood that the solution we end up pursuing is the wrong solution.

The same applies to climate change, and so it is not only the Bush Administration that is guilty of fostering "Panic!" Governance. Even Al Gore is guilty of tapping into this mentality (as is my own Liberal Party). Getting a consensus on the fact that there has been an increase in global temperature, caused by humans, is one thing. But figuring out how we can realistically and responsibly respond to these challenges is enormously complex and difficult. It will take time just to figure out how best to proceed. Climate change is a global problem, and getting a global solution is extremely difficult when we consider the fact that the world consists of countries that will be impacted by climate change in different ways- some for the better, some for the worse- and these countries have different levels of population and different levels of economic development. By many environmentalists who raise the alarm bells seem to think that getting the solution right is either self-evident or irrelevant. "Better to do something, anything [even if it does more harm than good] than be seen to be doing nothing".

So the "Panic!" Governance mentality puts all the emphasis on acting, and acting NOW!, rather than encouraging open debate and the gathering of reliable empirical data concerning how best to proceed. Anyone who opposes measures like the Patriot Act, or a carbon tax, is demonized as "unpatriotic" or a climate sceptic. When at its greatest force, "Panic!" Governance creates a chilling intellectual climate where any dissenter risks political suicide. And so the force of the extremism tends to grow unabated.

And finally, and most importantly, "Panic!" Governance undermines democracy itself. It leads to a Press more interested in covering sensationalist stories that keep viewers coming back for more than in enhancing public debate. It leads to a general public fed lies and distortions; a public that losses faith in politicians and the institutions of government. And thus the tragic irony of "Panic!" Governance is that it creates its own crisis- the crisis of democracy. The demise of democracy...now that is a genuine crisis in need of urgent and immediate attention.