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Ways & Means

Safety in a Scary World

What big government is good for

by Carl Pope

It looked so easy. A small number of disciplined men, a few thousand dollars to train pilots, some airplane tickets for dry runs, and a supply of box cutters and pen knives were sufficient to level the World Trade Center, drain a trillion dollarsout of the stock market, bring the air-travel industry to its knees, and transform the world’s political landscape.

What else is easy? Three weeks after September 11, an inebriated hunter on an ATV shot a hole in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, shutting it down for three days. If one of the pipeline’s pumping stations were attacked in the winter, write energy experts Amory and Hunter Lovins, “its 9 million barrels of hot oil could congeal into the world’s largest Chapstick,” depriving America of 15 percent of its petroleum supply until the summer thaw.

Not only is our infrastructure vulnerable to disruption, but--like jumbo jets--many of its elements can be turned into weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear power plants are the scariest example, but what about liquefied-natural-gas tankers, petroleum refineries, or giant dams? Our chemical plants are, evidently, so defenseless that information about them has been pulled from the Web. But efforts to improve plant security bogged down when some legislators insisted that plants be allowed to “self-assess” their vulnerability. Even an attempt to have airport security conducted by federal officers rather than the lowest-bidding private company ran into trouble. Fear of a new federal bureaucracy, it seems, trumps fear of passenger planes as missiles.

Why are the United States’ vital systems so inadequately protected? One reason, of course, is that we have never before suffered a major terrorist attack on our soil. Another is the result of a conscious, coordinated campaign--not by conspirators, but by patriotic Americans whose devotion to an idealized notion of individual liberty leads them to challenge even simple measures to protect the common good.

This essentially libertarian movement has dominated U.S. politics and culture since the Reagan era, and remains strong today, particularly in the Republican Party. Mary Sheila Gall, President Bush’s first nominee to head the Consumer Products Safety Commission, has criticized the agency for promoting “a federal Nanny State”--a catch-all term used to ridicule efforts to protect public health, security, and the environment. Seatbelts, bike helmets, trigger locks, organic-food labels, OSHA: All have been deemed evidence, over the years, of the stultifying embrace of the Nanny State.

A government that is strong enough to stop global warming, the nanny watchers warn, is also strong enough to take away our ATVs or lower the speed limit to 50. They love to quote their hero, Ronald Reagan, who said, “Government is the problem, not the solution.” Their alternative to the Nanny State is the Nano State: a government too small and weak to forbid the clearcutting of old-growth forests or the poisoning of minority neighborhoods.

The 20-year campaign for the Nano State has encountered resistance from ordinary, prudent Americans who persist in believing that cars should not roll over, food should not be adulterated, banks should not shut down overnight, and the air should not give their children asthma. This common-sense view finds its expression in the Precautionary Principle: that when health and the environment are at risk, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Supporters of the Nano State insist that they don’t want pollution or asthma; they just have more efficient, market-based means to address them. One of their core beliefs is that markets maximize freedom, and are thus always preferable to government regulation.

Markets, however, don’t do much to prevent catastrophe--they only sell insurance against it. The American people want more than pollution insurance--they want clean air. They want safe flights, not just the ability to sue after a hijacking. (Even this cold comfort is challenged by the small-government advocates who trumpet “tort reform,” limiting citizens’ ability to sue for damages.)

Supporters of the Nano State further try to limit the possibility of redress by turning the Precautionary Principle on its head. Risk is conceptually different from harm, they say, so industries should be allowed to put us at risk unless we can document the amount of harm that will occur. John D. Graham, the head of regulatory affairs for the Bush administration, has argued that since the cumulative risk of cancer from exposure to dioxin is “on par with other common risks” like automobile accidents, it constitutes a “normal” risk and is thus socially acceptable--no regulatory response needed. (This approach is hard to square with another cherished libertarian belief: that in a free society, we have the right to control our own bodies.)

A final dilemma for the devotees of market efficiency is that government often actually is the best way to provide safety and security. Speed limits work better than lawsuits to slow down drivers, and an effective police force is cheaper than having every family hire its own security guard. A clean community source of drinking water is more economical than everyone buying bottled water or tap filters. Building fuel-efficient autos emitting less CO2 is cheaper than building sea walls around Florida to protect it from the rising waters of global warming.

Attitudes toward security are changing. Public safety is less associated these days with fussy nannies than with firefighters and emergency workers. Even many supporters of a shrinking government are now concluding that, when it comes to health and safety, our democratic government isn’t the problem--it can be the solution.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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