Terrorism and Innumeracy
By Bryan Caplan
The Caplan/Smith argument is that because the number of auto-related deaths is much greater than terror-related deaths so far, a high level of concern about terrorism is not objectively warranted.
this sort of reasoning involves vicious abstraction. It is highly unreasonable to consider merely the numbers on both sides while abstracting from the motives of the terrorists and the societal impact of terrorism. With very few exceptions, drivers do not intend to kill anyone, and when their actions bring about deaths, those deaths involve only themselves and a few others.
I happily admit that Nathan’s case would have been stronger if he’d focused on garden-variety wrongful killings (murder and non-negligent manslaughter) rather than accidental killings. But the substance stands: Despite the worst terrorist attack in history in 2001, terrorism sums to just 1.5% of U.S. wrongful killings in the 21st century.
One cannot reasonably abstract from the political agenda of terrorists and the effects even a few terrorist events have on an entire society. Ask yourself: has your life changed at all since 9/11? It most certainly has if you travel by air whether domestically or internationally. And even if you don’t. Terrorists don’t have to kill large numbers to attain their political goal and wreak large-scale disruption. The Tsarnaev attack on the Boston Marathon shut down the city for a few days. Same with Paris, San Bernardino, Madrid, London, etc. That had all sorts of repercussions economic and psychological.
And if you care about civil liberties, then you should take the terror threat seriously and do your bit to combat it. For the more terror, the more government surveillance and the more infringement of civil liberties.
This boils down to complaining about the reaction to terrorism. But that’s ultimately my and Nathan’s point: Popular cures for terrorism are far worse than the disease. “Terrorism is a terrible problem we must fight with everything in our power” and “Terrorism is a terrible problem because we want to fight it with everything in our power” sound alike, but they’re diametrically opposed positions.
Vallicella’s strongest point:
There is also the obvious point that jihadis would kill millions if they could. Would they use nukes against the West if they could? Of course they would. And that would change the raw numbers!
I think the same goes for many, if not most, non-terrorist mass killers. Anyone who murders a classroom of children for fun might detonate a nuke for fun. That too would change the raw numbers! I will admit that the odds of a terrorist obtaining a nuke seem much higher than a mere sociopath doing so, but both are extremely remote.