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February 17, 2003

Liberalism & Terrorism

Randall Parker on the liberal national question.

Posted by razib at 11:31 AM

I think Parker is a little incoherent here - he starts by enumerating some changes that threaten the stability of the liberal state, then moves on to critique a pro-unlimited-immigration editorial in the WSJ. The latter is kind of an easy mark and I don't disagree w/ Parkers criticism of it, but the first part of his article (which could have been an entirely different article anyway...) has some bogus stuff:
1) Since when does liberalism require that everyone be motivated by an equal fear of death at the hands of their neighbors? This is classic ultra-utilitarian nonsense, where it's assumed that people act from base desires and are kept in check only by fear. Sure, that does describe some aspects and parts of society, but it's kind of a small window on the world.
2) The idea that technology has enabled people to become better killers is an interesting one, but just because ten men can kill more people than ever before, it doesn't follow that the threat to the stability of the liberal state is greater. To begin with, our ability to rebuild infrastructure is also increased by technology. And while the casualties from the WTC attack were high by American standards, they still are a small number of people - the novelty of the attack magnified the psychological impact, but the real impact was small by comparison with various strategic bombing attacks of the twentieth century. Even if some group of terrorists renders an entire city uninhabitable and kills tens of thousands of people using a radiological bomb, I still don't see a threat to the survival of the USA as a liberal state (except perhaps from our own overreaction - but that is another matter).

Posted by: bbartlog at February 18, 2003 11:45 AM


I see this as a question of what might happen tomorrow and what might happen in ten or twenty years.

Tomorrow, the costs of nuclear weapons and truly nightmarish pathogens are prohibitive. Ten or twenty years from now, that won't be the case.

How do we defend ourselves from a McVeigh with a truckload of something with the gestation of HIV, the contagion of smallpox and fatality greater than ebola?

It won't happen tomorrow. Nevertheless, the availability of such weapons will only increase with time while the cost of ownership will only decrease.

Only two years ago, I expected a terrorist attack with on US soil with thousands of casualties was probably on a five or ten year horizon. Now, I wonder whether the second such attack might be imminent.

In any case, I am much more intrigued by the concept of a political analogue to the Tragedy of the Commons.

Is it possible that, by giving liberal access to our free political system, we will eventually destroy the very freedom that makes it desirable?

As political actors, can people have similar effects on polity as they have on the economy as economic actors? For instance, if the Islamic population of America grows large enough, might that population simply vote in Sharia law?

Posted by: Bob Badour at February 18, 2003 03:43 PM

I agree that biological agents are the really scary threat, to the extent that there is one. Nuclear weapons will continue to be hard to make for a long time due to the problems of producing fissile material, and in any case a single A-bomb is not so much of a threat (you really need the multi-stage Dark Sun of the hydrogen bomb if you want cataclysmic damage). Chemical agents are too localized in effect to devastate a whole metropolis. The virus you describe, on the other hand, could destroy civilization.
Your second point highlights one of the weaknesses of democracy - I have always felt that democracy was somewhat overrated, and that a tradition of limited government and individual rights was more essential. Democracy can easily become the tyranny of the majority if not safeguarded by other liberal traditions.

Posted by: bbartlog at February 19, 2003 06:52 AM