Policy isomorphism - Fiscal : Domestic as Civil Rights : Foreign

I am baffled by a pair of beliefs that my LJ friend Boffo holds. In one case, he looks at two aspects of government which people often treat as equal, but affect our lives very differently, points out why, and then concludes that we should care about the one which affects us much more. In the other, he looks at two aspects of government which people often treat as equal, but affect our lives very differently, and then concludes that we should care about the one which affects us much less.

The first pair is fiscal & regulatory policy vs. civil rights. Libertarians are "fiscally conservative but socially liberal", and often treat the two spheres as equal. Yet they are not equal at all. Taxes and regulations affect every citizen every day of their lives, while civil rights come into play only occasionally.

We can even quantify this: government spending is something like 40% of GDP. Looking at that Gwartney/Holcombe/Lawson paper I love, we can see that if the government spend less than 25% of GDP, annual GDP growth would be about 6.6% instead of 3.8%. That makes the difference, over the last 50 years, of getting 24x richer or 6x richer - that's a big difference that affects everyone's quality of life. How to quantify civil rights issues? Well, one proxy is the number of arrests, which is about 14 million/year in this country of 300 million. So each person has a roughly 1 in 20 chance of being arrested each year. Many of them are likely to be for real crimes (ie 700K are for violent crimes) - and not involve civil rights violations. The number of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, facing the horror of being seized without a warrant, imprisoned without a trial, and tortured, numbers only in the hundreds.

This is a very rough comparison, of course, with a lot of hand-waving about civil liberties, but I think the difference is so strong that it only takes hand-waving to show it. 40% of our economic resources are directed, mostly in pointless and counterproductive ways, by the government, while most of us go unharassed most of the time. We overweight civil liberty violations because they are frightening and visceral.

The second pair is domestic vs. foreign policy. Again we have a situation where one (domestic policy) affects everyone every day. Domestic policy covers things like all that wasted tax money, the stupidity of Social Security and Medicare, the FDA reducing our choices in drugs, regulations slowing economic growth, and all that civil liberties stuff. Foreign policy mostly affects us in what shows up in the newspapers. We've lost a couple thousand soldiers in Iraq and 5K people to 9/11. Big whoop-de-do. The delays at airports (domestic policy) have already wasted more hours of life than those dead people had left. It's hardly even a blip on national mortality statistics. It hardly even compares to the lives wasted in jail for drug-related offenses, let alone the number killed by FDA over-regulation.

We overweight terrorism because it is frightening and visceral, when it hardly affects our lives. I suppose one can argue that because of our foreign policy, there is less terrorism. But there is simply no data to back up that assertion. Countries which spend less money and effort on foreign policy don't get inundated by terrorists. You'd have to argue that the US is somehow special and different, that unlike other countries, people will attack us unless we spend lots of money to stop them. It seems like an awful stretch to me.

If anything, I think the latter parallel is stronger. That is, the ratio of domestic:foreign effect on our lives feels significantly higher than fiscal:civil. 1 arrest per 20 people per year, maybe 0.5% of the population in jail, compared to about 0.0005% of Americans killed by terrorists or the war per year.

So, while voting and politics are useless occupations, this gives us a guide for when we indulge in them. Favor candidates with good domestic policy over those who say they will keep us safe from terror, and those who will reduce taxes and regulations over those who will restore civil liberties. In other words, Republican doves, if you can find them.

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