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The politics of fear

February 26, 2015

The politics of fear is in overdrive. It is easy to show that people’s fear of events is often drastically out of proportion to the actual risk of those events, and one of the best examples is the absurdly exaggerated fear of terrorism.

Over the last few decades there has been an average of about four Australian terror victims per year (including Australians overseas). To put that into perspective, in an average year about 20 people die from falling off chairs, 23 die from falling off ladders, 42 die from falling out of bed, and 53 die from falling down stairs. We need a “war on falling” instead of a “war on terror”.

According to the ABS, other deadly threats include contact with hot tap water (4/year), riding in a bus (4/year), chicken pox (6/year), riding an animal (7/year), anxiety (8/year), drowning in the bath (11/year), tractor accidents (14/year), diarrhoea (17/year), electrocution (22/year), hit by a train (26/year), freezing to death (28/year), riding a bicycle (36/year), food stuck in your throat (51/year), accidental strangulation (57/year), alcohol poisoning (57/year), the flu (67/year), HIV (88/year), obesity (194/year), murder (240/year), driving a car (853/year), and diabetes (3876/year).

The biggest killers are still cancer (>40,000/year) and heart disease (>30,000/year).

But fear is not driven by facts. Instead, fear is driven by scary stories told by terrorists and politicians who want you to be scared out of proportion to the risk. If you are irrationally scared then they have achieved their goal.

The terrorists and politicians are helped in their endeavour by the unavoidable truism that most people are rationally ignorant about issues not related to their everyday life. Public choice theory is unambiguous and the evidence is incontrovertible that most people are not well informed about public policy… and no amount of information campaigns or civic classes is going to make a difference.

Once uninformed voters have been sold a fear campaign, the inevitable consequence is that they demand that the government saves them from the danger.

At this point, it is childishly easy for politicians to win support by promising “strong action” to provide safety and security. The pesky details are irrelevant. The government is able to sell themselves as your saviour (rescuing you from unimaginable disaster)… and if the opposition dares to disagree then the government gets the double benefit of being your protector while also accusing the other side of wanting you to be vulnerable and in mortal danger. Suffice to say, most oppositions will meekly agree to any change, and they might add their own “fear & security” rhetoric in an attempt to neutralise the political point scoring.

One problem with this political narrative is that the government has already given themselves massive, intrusive, and pervasive powers. The political dilemma is that while a fear & security agenda will provide a boost in opinion polls, the state already has nearly all the power you can imagine from all the previous fear & security campaigns. The balance between “security” and “liberty” has been continuously pushed in only one direction, and there are only so many times that you can double police powers before the situation gets absurd.

But from a political perspective, this is only a problem of style (not substance) which can easily be solved with more dramatic rhetoric. The tactic of exaggerating a danger and then saying you will protect people from the danger does not require effective policy. Indeed, to some degree the political tactic works best if you propose an absurd solution, since it increases the chance that the opposition may oppose the policy… and can then be painted as “soft on terror” and unwilling to protect you.

Given his precarious political position, it is not surprising to see Abbott falling back on the politics of fear & security. The simple and sad reality is that it works. But next time somebody tells you that we need to give up a bit more liberty (and a bit more, and a bit more) to protect us from terrorism… ask them how much liberty they are willing to give up to protect themselves from the horrors of hot tap water, catching a bus, and falling off chairs.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. TerjeP
    February 27, 2015 at 9:54 am

    If it’s completely inevitable that people get scared and grasp for a solution to the thing they fear then there is no point denying it. Denying the reality that people get fearful is about as naive as the fear itseld. So if you want to sell product (policy) in a market filled with fear then you need to pitch your product in such a way to cater to that market reality. So for instance with Islamic terrorism you can pitch things like restricted citizenship, reduced welfare for non citizens, access to a means of self defence etc. Or you can say stop being scared. The later won’t work, the former might.

  2. February 28, 2015 at 8:11 am

    I didn’t deny that people get scared.

    What I am “selling” here is a story about how people get scared about things that aren’t very dangerous. I would not be able to sell this story if I didn’t write it.

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