The Precautionary Principle: Terrorism, Global Warming, and Health Care
(From the Centers for Disease Control, pdf.)
Over at DovBear, et al., my esteemed JAJC colleague Nephtuli refers to what's known as the Precautionary Principle, which is based on a statement by Dick Cheney:
We have to deal with this new type of threat in a way we havenÂt yet defined... With a low-probability, high-impact event like this... If thereÂs a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.
Nephtuli goes on to argue that because the potential harm of nuclear terrorism is so great, we must take it much more seriously than a more probable but less damaging event.
This of course makes perfect sense. What's curious here is not the form of Cheney's argument, but its application. Or, more specifically, what's curious is not that he applies it to nuclear terrorism, which I think is appropriate, but that he does not apply it to other situations.
In the comments, Conservative Apikorus points out this discrepancy:
I find it amusing that the right-wingers are now advocating the Precautionary Principle when it can be used to justify their "war on terror," but they totally oppose the principle when it is used to justify strict environmental and safety regulations.
What a great point! What could the Precautionary Principle be more relevant to than the environmental debate? Even the most die-hard skeptic must admit that there's at least a 1% chance of at least a million deaths sometime in the next century if we don't curb global warming! By Cheney's logic, we must treat devastating global warming as a certainty! Why isn't Cheney campaigning for drastic environmental measures?
Similarly, if one looks at the causes of death for Americans, (see above table) some interesting things pop out:
More than 4% of people die from "accidents" each year. Therefore, every single decade, a million Americans die in accidents. Why isn't Cheney doing public service announcements and campaigning for safer cars and highways? Why isn't he fighting for greater OSHA regulations?
And what about heart and respiratory diseases? How many of those are preventable?
During 1995-1999, smoking caused approximately 440,000 premature deaths in the United States annually, leading to 13.2 years of potential life lost for male smokers, and 14.5 years lost for female smokers. (about.com)
Cheney believes that currently illegal drugs should remain illegal. Why isn't he campaigning against tobacco?
And let's not forget about health care! According to Americans for Healthcare, there were 45,000,000 uninsured Americans in 2003, including 8,000,000 children.
How many lives could be saved with universal health care? It's got to be more than a million in the next few decades -- probably much more.
So, Mr. Vice-President, I agree with your logic. Now why don't you please apply it to problems other than terrorism?
I'll leave you with one final thought. We've spent a couple hundred billion dollars in the War in Iraq. Was that the single most efficient way we could have spent that money to prevent preventable American deaths?