The Fallacy of Prevention

March 26, 2009

For a state-supported entity, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has some remarkably good shows on business and economics. Venture did a great job of exposing Canadians to real life examples of successful and unsuccessful businesses, economics and entrepreneurship in a Canadian context. Sadly, the show was canceled in 2007, due to (ironically) government cuts to the CBC budget. Marketplace, still on the air, looks at the market from the consumer’s standpoint, providing information and advocacy. Both shows are examples of the kind of media that, in a free society, would address the much ballyhooed “information” problem and give both consumers and entrepreneurs the information they require to make good decisions in the market.

However, every now and again, the advocacy betrays an underlying issue with the left and liberals that I call The Fallacy of Prevention. That is, every problem must be prevented from occuring, rather than dealt with afterward. Usually this must be done at almost any cost and almost always involved some form of prohibition. Liberals of course, are not alone in using this fallacy – the entire Department of Homeland Security and just about every post-9\11 “security” measure introduced by the Bush Administration and governments around the world are also predicated on this.

Recently, Marketplace demonstrated this kind of thinking in spade with a show entitled The Trouble with Fake Guns. The episode tries to examine the seemingly sudden “explosion” of the use of realistic looking, but “fake” BB-guns and Air guns in crimes, focusing, of course, on those fakes that look like handguns. I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers to the above linked video when I say that in the end, the show is calling for more laws and regulation of these “weapons.”

And therein lies the flaw of logic at the heart of the fallacy. If you watch the episode (please do) you’ll notice that the hosts, the police and even the regular people in the street all seem to assign emotional, human qualities to the guns in question  – and indeed to guns in general – that they are “evil” or that the guns themselves are the cause of the crimes in question.  Somehow the idea is that if the guns -fake or real- are not present or available, the crimes themselves will be prevented. Its not the people that are the problem, but the existence or presence of those “evil” guns.

Typically, this illogical line of thinking leads inevitably to cries for “prohibition” – banning real guns, banning fake guns. And as history has taught, prohibition and banning of anything simply does not work.

What these authoritarians and public concern troll busy-bodies do not understand is that an in animate object, even a gun, is morally neutral. It is not good, nor evil, but merely a morally neutral tool. If a gun, for instance, is used to hunt for food or to protect the life of an innocent person, then they are deemed good. If it is used to rob a store or execute a prisoner, then it is deemed evil. Missing in this simplistic analysis is that behind these actions are the choices of people. Even the Marketplace video in questions seems to admit this – the cop says using the “fake” guns to shoot pop cans or targets is great fun and no problem.

Of course behind the very idea of “prevention” is the acceptance that one person has the right to coerce another to stop them from doing something before they do it. It is the idea that because I might do something wrong or have the capacity to do something someone else believes is “wrong”, that another person may use force against me or to take my legitimately acquired property or to use that force to prevent me from even acquiring said property. I hold that, except for personal choices made about oneself, the entire idea of  “prevention” is anti-libertarian and an bald violation of the non-aggression principle.

And, in practice, simply doesn’t work anyway.

Our experience world wide in the “drug war” is a perfect example. Banning drugs to “prevent” people from getting them has not stopped people from getting them. It has merely made criminals our ot people who are otherwise completely peaceful. It has not prevented the abuse of drugs while punishing the legitimate use of them – California’s experience with medical marijuana is a perfect example.

In Canada, the near complete ban on handguns and the heavy regulation and licensing requirements for legal posession and ownership, has not stopped or prevented gun crime. It has created a situation where most criminals can be reasonably sure that law-abiding citizens are very probably unarmed, which allows them the convenience of being able to rob stores with much cheaper “fake” guns without any risk. In short, fake guns are only a problem because the real thing is nearly completely prohibited. And the market in illegal guns, like drugs, thrives because criminals won’t use legit means to obtain weapons anyway and even law abiding citizens will go to the underground market because regulations are to complex and onerous. All of which drive the profits for gun smugglers and dealers.

Even something like cigarettes, when banned or taxed to too high a level, does not prevent it from being used or abused.  Just as with guns or drugs, it merely drives otherwise law abiding people into criminals arms. And the criminals love it because of the profit motive. In 1993, after Prime Minister Jean Chretien was elected in Canada, he almost single-handedly wiped out the Mohawk cigarette smuggling industry when he dropped taxes on the product. When the price went from $7 CAD a pack to $2 nearly over night, the smuggling and illegal activity stopped. And now that the taxes and price have crept back up, the smuggling has started anew.

No amount of coercive attacks on supply can wipe out demand.

The sollution is not prevention or banning of objects and tools, but incentives to human behaviour – reward uses deemed acceptable and punish or admonish behaviours that are not. And accept risk. Part of the attitude underlying the fallacy is that there should be no risk in life. Rather, one should accept risk but be realistic about it. Journalist Dan Gardiner has made a career exposing the facts and common misconceptions about the risks we face. Bruce Schneier is well known for advocating a focus on proper response to and intelligence about security threats like terrorism, rather than the freedom and liberty destroying attempts to “prevent the last attack after its happened” or indulge in security theatre (like bannings and prohibitions)  that do not make us safe anyway.

The best prevention is allowing people the freedom and liberty to make their own choices and to create the incentives to make the right choices. In the Marketplace video, “fake” guns are a problem, because real guns are so heavily regulated and banned. It is not unreasonable to assume that once the “fake” guns are banned and regulated, knives will be used to rob stores. Or baseball bats. Or screw drivers. Or scissors. Will we ban and regulate them too? In short, most of our prohibitions are in response to problems created entirely by our earlier attempts at heavy regulation and prohibitions of things – a vicious, downward spiral, where our liberty is the first and biggest casualty.

No more prevention please.  Let people learn to deal with the consequences of their actions, rather than desparately trying to prevent them from doing things or using things in the first place. Accept the risks, mitigate the consequence but allow people to be free to make choices and mistakes.

One Response to “The Fallacy of Prevention”


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