An efficient amount of people to die from terrorism

While idling in my office during a break today, I came across an interesting comment thread at Too Much To Dream. The comments in question were written by someone using the tag '24601,' who also posts at Libertarian.org.au. Excerpts:

...there is an efficient amount of everything which tends to be non-infinite and non-zero.
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We could (try to) get rid of all terrorism by killing all the terrorists... but if the costs are too high then it just isn't worth it.
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It is not true that the government should spend any amount and do everything it can to prevent a death. Like it or not -- there is an efficient amount of people to die from terrorism.

And a bit later:

You make fun of the "give up" solution... but the reality is that if fighting has more costs than benefits -- we should "give up." Consider the government war on drugs. Consider the government war on poverty. Giving up on these wars does not mean that poverty and drugs are good -- it simply means that the huge government program is failing and should be scrapped.
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The marginal cost of saving a life increases per life saved (i.e., the slope of the supply curve for anti-death measures is upwards). If it costs $100 to save a life... then great. If it costs $100 trillion, then the government shouldn't act. Somewhere in the middle is the correct response... and it's unlikely to result in zero deaths.

I'll admit I had never thought of the "war on terror" in these terms. The statements above may sound outrageous at first blush, but so did the idea of legalizing all drugs when I first heard it talked about a decade ago. I believe there may be quite a bit of truth in 24601's assertions.

I thought I'd throw this up for debate here, as I believe the readers of this site will post reasoned responses rather than spleen-venting venom.

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I prefer looking at it from

I prefer looking at it from a slightly different perspective. Each individual places a rank on how much he(she/it) values security from terrorists in relation to other goods. This person can then evaluate and manage the attendant risks for himself, and determine maximum efficiency for himself. Some individuals will desire a greater level of security while others prefer the alternatives. Government on the other hand must try to determine a reasonable level of security for everyone in a one-size-fits-all solution. That the political market sees security as costing less than it truly does (we can just take more money from our neighbors to fund it), the political market demands more security than a free market. Yet the operations of government being always inefficient produce less and less security while costing more and more.

In other related news I just received Hoppe's latest - The Myth of National Defense. I hope this topic turns into a good long discussion.

It's that nasty law of

It's that nasty law of diminishing returns rearing its ugly head. Yes, perfect security just isn't possible. We must way the risks of a future attack to the costs of preventing it. Already, the costs of enforcing airline security may be outweighing the benefits. I think if terrorists tried another Sep. 11-type hijacking the passengers would revolt since they had nothing to lose even if the terrorists claimed no one would be hurt. If my hunch is accurate the extensive searches of all passengers is a waste of time and resources.

"If my hunch is accurate the

"If my hunch is accurate the extensive searches of all passengers is a waste of time and resources."

Ironically, that passenger revolt might be even more successful if passengers weren't searched at all.

Kevin, A few thoughts - 1)

Kevin,

A few thoughts -

1) 24601 may be a smart guy/gal, but he demonstrates the epitome of bad libertarian argumentation: calling your opponent stupid, being dramatic without being persuasive, and not meeting your opponent half way to pull her over to your side. What is the result? Andrea Harris is probably less likely to listen to anything a libertarian has to say in the future.

2) I agree with him/her in that there is an opportunity cost for every action. However, this cost is an individual one, not a collective one. Speaking of things that may sound outrageous at first blush, such was the case for me upon hearing the Austrian view of efficiency. And the logical extension and consequences of that view is too foreign and outrageous for most people, even most libertarians, to give much serious thought to. I oppose the War on Terror not because it is inefficient, but because it will inevitably lead to violations of rights of free association and freedom of contract among Americans. (In this imperfect world, I would support a non-perpetual War on Al-Qaeda if Bush would have framed it in those terms.)

3) As an off-the-cuff example for more discussion about Dave's argument above, here is a question -

You have just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and have been told that you have at most 6 months to live. You have worked your whole life to see your son graduate from college, which is set to occur in 2 years. A heroic surgery might extend your life by as much as 3 years, but it will not cure the cancer, and there is no guarantee of success anyway. The surgery results in a long rehabilition process afterwards. It also costs $100,000; you don't have insurance so it would deplete most of your life savings. Do you go ahead with the surgery?

You have just been diagnosed

You have just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer...you don't have insurance so it would deplete most of your life savings. Do you go ahead with the surgery?

I don't know. Is my life savings being used to help him through college, or have I raised him right, :-P and he is pulling his own weight through? What are his and the rest of the family's thoughts? If all the conditions are otherwise as I would want them, I would drain my life savings and get the operation. I can imagine many sets of circumstances where the details are such that I might decide to forego the operation, and likewise many circumstances where I would go through with the operation. I'll be happy to have the choice. :-)

would it be correct to get

would it be correct to get someone else(the government) to steal my income to pay for your personal localised problem, ie your cancer? if 'everyone' had brain cancer and 2 years to live it would be slightly diferent, but not much, ethically speaking. bankrupting the wealth of other individuals to 'save us all' from some perceived(mathematically incredibly small) threat is not going to work. ever.

Interestingly, what 24601

Interestingly, what 24601 wrote is not controversial at all among mainstream economists. Whether the decision to be made is public or private, it is foolish to go ahead with that decision if the costs outweigh the benefits. Many people find this way of thinking offensive and grotesque, but their error is a result of mistakenly placing infinite values on certain outcomes. In reality, they do not actually place infinite values on these outcomes; instead, they just refuse to take the issue seriously enough in order to realize that every decision has tradeoffs. For every dollar we spend on terrorism reduction, that is one dollar less we have to spend on healthcare, improving the environment, consumer safety, etc. This tradeoff exists whenever individuals make decisions, as well as when governments make decisions for multiple individuals.

It seems to make sense,

It seems to make sense, especially using the War on Drugs as a comparison, but the War on Terrorism, has already shown benefits. However, the greatest benefits are the ones that can never be proven because we can never know what might have happened if things had been handled differently. Of course the other side can use the "what might have happened" argument also so it's really impossible to be certain who is right until it's over and a generation or two has passed and we can look back on it all in a completely detached manner.

I don't know. Is my life

I don't know. Is my life savings being used to help him through college, or have I raised him right, :-P and he is pulling his own weight through? What are his and the rest of the family's thoughts? If all the conditions are otherwise as I would want them, I would drain my life savings and get the operation. I can imagine many sets of circumstances where the details are such that I might decide to forego the operation, and likewise many circumstances where I would go through with the operation. I'll be happy to have the choice. :-)

Exactly. The scenario will result in different preferences for different people based on their own situations, risk tolerances, and values. The ideal solution is to allow people to have choices.

The problem with using the "efficient" standard for the War on Terror is that we all have different standards for efficiency.

You have to take the

You have to take the expected number of terrorist deaths over time based on each alternative course of action.

Now if you just leave the terrorists alone, you could end up with them taking more lives each year than the year before as their methods and weapons get better. Comparing snapshots isn't going to give you the right answer in this case.

Well, figuring my chances

Well, figuring my chances from dying from a terrorist attack in the foreseeable future, based on the actuarial statistics for the past few years; and comparing that to the share of taxation per capita that goes to national "defense"; I'd have to say it just isn't worth it.

Ken is right to say that estimates based on such "snapshots" are misleading, because of the way our action or inaction may affect the occurence of terrorism in the future. But I think it is much more likely that blowback from an interventionist foreign policy, and not inaction, will increase terrorism.

I don't buy for a minute the argument that they attacked us "because they hate our freedoms." Had not the U.S. armed tens of thousands of fundamentalist maniacs in Afghanistan twenty years ago, and had it not arrogated to itself the right to intervene when one shitpot Arab country invaded another, I don't believe 9-11 would have happened.

Stop and think of the implications for the U.S. if "our" government intervenes in every internal conflict in which "terror" is used by one party or another. That includes most of the civil wars, insurrections, and secessionist movements in the world. When the U.S. has an imperial garrison in every such country, and the losing party in every such conflict sees U.S. domestic opinion as the key to victory, how many Mogadishus and 9-11s do you think we'll have?