Friday, May 22, 2009

Appeals to 'Fear' Neither a Uniquely Identifying Nor Disqualifying Property of a Policy Argument

After the 'dueling speeches' on national security given this week by President Obama and ex-Vice-President Cheney (1) (2), many, mostly left-leaning commentators accused Cheney and the Republicans of using fear as--or in place of-- an argument (3). Even the President himself cautioned against continuing "to make decisions within a climate of fear" (4) during his speech (5). However, such categorical denials disregard the legitimate policy considerations that are or may be motivated by fear-- an emotion brought about by the "anticipation or awareness of danger"(6).

The mere existence of a military, let alone one that is sustained by 1/5 of the federal budget (7), seems evidence enough that fear-motivated policies can be uncontroversially considered legitimate. While military policy may be motivated by fear for life and limb, other uncontroversial policies may be motivated by different types of fears. Policies motivated by health fears (e.g., Medicare and Medicaid), educational fears (e.g., public schools and college grant programs), or environmental fears (e.g, the EPA and National Parks) are typically not subject to accusations of fear-mongering. The policy initiatives driven by these fears are intended to mitigate the harm--or danger-- posed to social and individual well-being were such programs not in place. In short, whether defined broadly or narrowly, fear seems to occupy a legitimate place in arguments relating to public policy (8).

(To avoid a straw man, it is important to note that many commentators refer to a more nefarious conception of fear in their arguments. Perhaps willing to acknowledge the legitimate use of fear within certain discourses, some have accused Cheney and others of using a primal, wild-eyed fear to pre-empt the prudent consideration of policy (9). Cheney's response that a degree of uncomfortable fear is warranted given the magnitude of the threat relies, in large part, on an empirical assertion about the nature of such threats. The resolution to this particular debate may depend on whether our varying psychological dispositions will regard such evidence as warranting a more hasty deliberation. Of course, if conclusive facts about the threat are not forthcoming--and this debate reduces to a mere conflict of dispositions-- an agreeable resolution will remain unlikely.)

Despite the legitimacy of many aspects of the recent criticism, it seems uncharitable to claim that the "Republican side" of the argument reduces to mere scare tactics designed to circumvent the syllogism-- what if these threats are as real as is claimed? Even if the particular arguments advanced by Republicans were to be found unsound, fear itself can certainly perform a legitimate role in political argument without entailing odious conclusions.

(1) "Compare and Contrast: Obama and Cheney's Divergent Views on National Security." May 21, 2009.
(2) "Obama v. Cheney." The Plank Blog, The New Republic, May 21, 2009.
(3) Herrington, Stephen. "To Detain or Not [to] Detain." The Huffington Post, May 22, 2009.
(4) Official transcript, "Remarks by the President on National Security." White House Office of the Press Secretary, May 21, 2009.
The President deserves credit here for dealing with the false dichotomy between protecting the nation's security and upholding individual rights without appealing to ridicule or the use of straw man arguments.
(6) Entry for "fear." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
(7) "Updated Summary Tables." Budget of the U.S. Government Fiscal Year 2010, May 2009. Compare table S-1 "Budget Totals" with table S-3 "Baseline Projection of Current Policy by Category."
(8) Indeed, this notion has long been a cornerstone of western political thought. Perhaps most famously articulated by Hobbes' contention that the dangerous realities of man's nature compel us towards political incorporation (Hobbes, Thomas Leviathan. 1651. Chapters 13 and 18), the notion that governments are fundamentally tasked with the prevention of violent death and other harms is universally acknowledged by the central theorists of the western tradition. While this point about theories that seek to justify the legitimacy of government should not be interpreted too broadly-- especially when it comes to the very particular circumstances of torture and indefinite detentions-- it is instructive to note that fear motivates the core legitimacy of many western political theories.
(9) Eve. "Call this a CT if you think it is. But it's the only conclusion I can reach." DailyKos, May 21, 2009.


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