The Case for Doing Nothing

Ervin is right. I haven’t addressed his fundamental point yet. So I guess I should do it now. I agree with him and have no doubt that “Al Qaeda and its acolytes remain determined to attack us again.” Nevertheless, I suspect that their ability to pull off “another devastating attack” is largely overblown. John and others have made a very convincing case and I wish more security experts would listen to them. At the very least, I wish more people would invest some time to find out who our enemies are and what they are really capable of, rather than assuming the worst.

I also agree with Ervin that there are a huge number of security gaps that remain unaddressed. Yet we need to keep in mind that there will always be such gaps. No security measure is ever perfect. As a consequence, I have no doubts as to the likely prospect of a future attack here at home.

And Ervin and I would agree that whatever antiterrorism measures are put in place, they should concentrate our resources to protect against the most dramatic consequences and they should be cost effective.

Here is where we disagree: considering the low probability event of a terrorist attack, and considering the fact that we don’t know what form it will take or where it will happen, it is likely that the most cost effective measure is to do nothing and then spend money to clean up and compensate the victims after the fact. In other words, rather than protecting all targets or even few targets with a high probability of failing, we should spend money mitigating the consequences of the attack. Of course, at the same time, the federal government should try its best to catch terrorists, dismantle networks, and collect intelligence on future plots.

To be sure, this policy is unlikely. Politicians always want to be seen as doing something. So there is no way they’d go along. And the public will very likely have a hard time dealing with the theory behind the policy. Cost-benefit analysis is a hard exercise that exposes us economists as the cold-hearted beings we are.

In my mind there is only one case where we might deviate from the “do nothing” policy. I say “might” because I am not a security expert and I might actually be wrong about it. However, if I am not, it is consistent with our overall theory since it directs some resources to prevent against one type of attack, which, if successfully implemented, would have dramatic consequences. I am talking about a successful nuclear attack inside the U.S. I believe that even though the probability of a terrorist nuclear attack in the U.S. is extremely low, the consequence would be so devastating that it would be a good idea to do something about it.

But on this front I once again differ from Ervin. The most cost-effective thing to do to try to prevent terrorists from using a nuclear device in, let’s say lower Manhattan, is to make sure terrorists can’t put their hands on fissile material such as highly enriched uranium. No fissile material, no bomb. It’s as simple as that. Aside from that measure—which is hard to implement—I think there is little else to do. The measures we are heavily investing in today such as checking 100 percent of cargo coming into our ports, closing our borders, and other initiatives, make little sense in the face of the cost of each measure, and are unlikely to be effective at stopping terrorists. And if it’s not cost-effective we shouldn’t do it. Period.

To conclude, it seems clear to me to me that in the current debate between the public, the airlines, industry lobbyists, Capitol Hill, security experts, defense contractors, or the White House, each of the players has his own agenda which often has nothing to do with security. No one is really trying to figure out what the actual risk is, what the optimal level of risk we are willing to live with is, how much cost and inconvenience is acceptable, and then what security measures achieve these tradeoffs efficiently. Instead, we are told that we should prepare for the worst and hope for the best no matter what the cost. It is bad policy, bad economics, and bad security.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Five years after 9/11, are we any safer? In the lead essay of this month’s Cato Unbound, Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller offers a set of provocative reflections on what that question might mean. Along the way, Mueller argues that the terrorist threat to American lives is overblown, and that the attempt to protect ourselves against any possible attack is impossible, and a waste of taxpayer money. “It would seem to make more sense,” Mueller writes, “to substantially abandon the quixotic policy of seeking to make everything (or even a lot of stuff) safe, and then use the money saved to repair any terrorist damage and to compensate any victims.”

Response Essays

  • Clark Kent Ervin, Director of the Homeland Security Initiative at the Aspen Institute, and author of Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack counts himself among those who “strongly disagrees with both [John Mueller’s] premises and his conclusions.” Ervin stresses al Qaeda’s repeated intention to again attack the United States, and the alleged proliferation of terror cells in the United States and abroad. Ervin takes issue with what he calls Mueller’s “argumentum ad statisticum”–comparing terrorist murder to accidental death–and maintains that in a context of uncertainty about future attacks, “I’d rather err on the side of the believers. The downside of being wrong is so much smaller!”

  • Veronique de Rugy, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the $271.5 billion devoted by the federal government to homeland security since 9/11 has not been well spent. “Not only are we over-investing in homeland security,” de Rugy argues, “but most times we spend too much money in the wrong way and on the wrong things.” The consequence is that we are no safer. “Bad security is often worse than no security at all,” de Rugy writes. “By trying, and failing, to make ourselves more secure, we make ourselves less secure.”

  • Timothy Naftali, author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, argues that “the threat is getting wider without being deeper,” with new terror recruits failing to form “the kind of militaristic groups that would be needed to mount a serious military threat to the U.S. mainland.” Naftali argues that though the Bush administration deserves credit for weakening Al Qaeda, it has otherwise been “largely incompetent” in denying terrorists sanctuaries, and discouraging recruits to violent extremism. The main danger, Naftali contends, is that a terror group acquires a loose nuke, and the U.S. needs to attend more to this specific problem.