Unless you’ve been leaving under a rock for the last couple weeks, you probably know that an Icelandic volcano spewed tons of ash into the air and prevented European air travel for a handful of days. Preliminary observations make it look like the governments were a little too cautious when they banned all air travel. The uncertainty of what the ash would do to jet engines was their main cause for concern. Meanwhile, the airlines, losing billions of dollars, have complained that the regulation was too restrictive.
Let’s just assume that the government has the right to and should stop air travel in this situation. The main point I want to make from this situation is that societal attitudes towards government action have a pro-interventionist bias. The over-cautious government is a reflection of society’s extremely risk-averse attitude when it comes to government regulation.
If Gordon Brown and the rest of the European elite didn’t ground the flights, and one engine got a little messed up from the ash, people would be going bizzerk (spelling?). “Why didn’t the government do enough to stop this?!” is usually the cry heard. The reason is that governments, when confronted with uncomfortable situations like this, find it more politically beneficial to be able to say “well, at least we did something“. My high school had a substantial anti-bullying program/fest full of emotionally-charged activities meant to stop bullying around the school. Most people agreed it did nothing. It was a waste of a couple days of school and a lot of money. But at least, in a situation where bullying occurred, the school could say “well at least we tried.”
The Food and Drug Administration is a pretty easy target for the point I’m trying to make. Statistically speaking, at some point the cost to society of allowing a dangerous drug to go on the market is the same as not approving a safe and beneficial drug (type 1 vs. type 2 errors). But imagine if a drug gets put on the market that three people get nauseous from. People go crazy. Why isn’t the government doing anything to stop this?! So what does the government do in response to this? The same thing they do when a school shooting happens, a terrorist gets a little too close for comfort, someone gets scammed by a pseudo-company, someone claims to be influenced by video games, or a model of a car gets into too many crashes: they pass overbearing regulation that says to the public “at least we’re trying.”
Even if you agree that government regulation is beneficial in said situations, I think my point still is valid. In any situation, people usually look to government action to make things better. No politician – ok very few – would find it in their best interest to respond to one of those given situations with “yeah, that’s a shame. But our ‘cure’ would be worse than ‘the disease’.” For those of Republican bent: with the recent economic crisis, it’s much easier to say that regulation will improve things than to say we should do nothing and we’re fine as it. For those of Democratic bent: after September 11th, it’s much easier to be proactive by instituting crap like the Patriot Act and getting involved in wars than saying “nahh, that was a fluke. Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing.”
Brown is a charmless man who looks like he’s being dominated by Nick Clegg. But I have to defend him in this situation because it’s exactly what the public wanted.