Mainstream Cost-Benefit Security Analysis
This essay in The New York Times is refreshingly cogent:
You’ve seen it over and over. At a certain intersection in a certain town, there’ll be an unfortunate accident. A child is hit by a car.
So the public cries out, the town politicians band together, and the next thing you know, they’ve spent $60,000 to install speed bumps, guardrails and a stoplight at that intersection—even if it was clearly a accident, say, a drunk driver, that had nothing to do with the design of the intersection.
I understand the concept; people want to DO something to channel their grief. But rationally, turning that single intersection into a teeming jungle of safety features, while doing nothing for all the other intersections in town, in the state, across the country, doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Another essay from the BBC website:
That poses a difficult ethical dilemma: should government decisions about risk reflect the often irrational foibles of the populace or the rational calculations of sober risk assessment? Should our politicians opt for informed paternalism or respect for irrational preferences?
The volcanic ash cloud is a classic case study. Were the government to allow flights to go ahead when the risks were equal to those of road travel, it is almost certain that, over the course of the year, hundreds of people would die in resulting air accidents, since around 2,500 die on the roads each year.
This is politically unimaginable, not for good, rational reasons, but because people are much more risk averse when it comes to plane travel than they are to driving their own cars.
So, in practice, governments do not make fully rational risk assessments. Their calculations are based partly on cost-benefit analyses, and partly on what the public will tolerate.