Relentlessly Tactical, Event-Specific Catastrophism, and the Limits of Cost-Benefit Analysis

I’m traveling, so have not been able to comment as I’d like regarding the Christmas terror attack.  However, I wanted to add one thought about cost benefit analysis and counter-terrorism.  A couple of years ago I wrote a paper on ways in which the American political class is riven by deep foundational disagreements about the proper way to approach transnational terrorism.  It is partly implicated in the “war” versus “law enforcement” argument, but actually it goes deeper than that – is it possible to have an offensive strategy against terrorism, or is the only long term possibility defensive perimeters represented by such things as airport screenings and the like?  That, and an even more pessimistic possibility that simply says, following the John Mueller-James Fallows analysis, get used to it and anyway the chances of you getting killed by terrorism are smaller than a lightning strike.

The American public does not buy the “get used to it” approach and so, at least as a matter of public speeches and public stances, no American administration will do so, either.  Instead, the argument divides over offensive versus defensive approaches, and over strategies that adopt a strategic view encompassing both a strategic vision that includes going on offense against terrorists as well as defensive strategies, contrasted with strategies that are, by their nature, tactical and defensive.  The American political class is quite divided over this strategic question – viz., can there be a “strategy,” or is the only strategy really a defensive retreat to defensive tactics?

This deep seated “foundational” disagreement over the nature of terrorism and the response to terrorism has a further twist, however.  Given the deep foundational disagreement over the proper kind of response, at the deepest conceptual level, the tendency is to retreat – as a procedural matter for how to make a decision – to the lowest common denominator.  Where there is deep foundational disagreement as to the nature of the threat, how to respond, whether there is any real scope for holistic strategies or whether the “strategy” must necessarily be responsive and tactical and defensive – the tendency as a matter of procedure, of how policy is made, is to retreat to the shared lowest common denominator.

That lowest common denominator is a form of narrow cost benefit analysis that emphasizes things with which no one could really disagree.  We can’t agree how to fight terrorism, or even whether to fight it – but we can agree that metal detectors at airports are a good thing.  It turns out, enough years out from 9/11, that many people in the political class, think that much of the apparently undisputed matters of agreement are not worth the trouble either, but in general, the tendency of policy is toward obvious things that are driven by cost benefit analysis in some way that gets past the foundational disagreements.

The problem with this form of cost benefit analysis, however, is that as Philip Bobbitt once observed to me, it is purely reactive, defensive, and “relentlessly tactical.”  But the problem is, what happens if your political classes are deadlocked around what a “strategy” should look like, if anything?  You are driven back by process alone to the “relentlessly tactical.”  Actually, it is worth than that.  Not only are you driven back to reactive, defensive, tactical, and narrow forms of cost benefit analysis – you are driven to forms of it that are nearly inevitably what I’ve sometimes called “event specific-catastrophism.”  Meaning by that, the nature of your cost benefit analysis causes you to proceed serially, from one bad event and its prevention to the next – the nature of the CBA does not really offer a way to give a holistic strategy by which you might get ahead of events and threatened catastrophes.

Why not?  Because the nature of your political processes and the divisions of the political class preclude one from embracing any foundations – deep foundational assumptions – about the nature of the enemy, or even, in any sense meaningful to strategy, to the idea of having one.

I once wrote about the problems of foundational disagreement in the response to terrorism, and the limits of cost benefit analysis.  It was not a great paper, to be honest, and I hoped that the circumstances that impelled that paper would simply go away.  But they have not.  So I’m going to link it here.  “Event-specific catastrophism” is a clumsy term, sure – but it gets at a deep problem with cost benefit analysis of the kind that currently drives policy.  Relentlessly tactical, reactive, defensive … that form of strategic minimalism is fine as a judicial philosophy, as Cass Sunstein has articulated, because to judge is mostly to react, and in a democratic society, the fundamental terms to which one reacts as a judge ought to be made elsewhere.  But the relentlessly serial nature of CBA does not allow it (except by twisting it into something it is not) to embrace such fundamentally strategic ideas as, for example, envelopment and gambit.

Not everything is like judging, and a philosophy of adjudication is not the same as policy and politics simpliciter.  Sometimes you need foundational assumptions, and you need a strategy to get ahead of the other side.  To do that, however, you need a method that accepts that they are a “side” and not just a lightning strike.

The Assumptions Behind the Assumptions in the War on Terror: Risk Assessment as an Example of Foundational Disagreement in Counterterrorism Policy,” 54 Wayne Law Review (2008).  Abstract:

This 2007 article (based around an invited conference talk at Wayne State in early 2007) addresses risk assessment and cost benefit analysis as mechanisms in counterterrorism policy. It argues that although policy is often best pursued by agreeing to set aside deep foundational differences, in order to obtain a strategic plan for an activity such as counterterrorism, foundational differences must be addressed in order that policy not merely devolve into a policy minimalism that is always and damagingly tactical, never strategic, in order to avoid domestic democratic political conflict. The article takes risk assessment in counterterrorism, using cost benefit analysis, as an example of a foundational disagreement that cannot easily be elided. Examining an extreme, indeed crude, recent example of cost benefit analysis applied to the risks of terror and the costs of counterterrorism – John Mueller’s widely noticed Overblown – the article suggests that cost benefit analysis, at least applied in this way, runs roughshod over other important values in counterterrorism policy, such as justice, but in addition, makes radical yet unstated assumptions about what cost benefit analysis seeks to compare in establishing counterterrorism policy or estimating the risks and costs of terrorism – unstated assumptions that, in fact, assume the conclusion. The article notes that cost benefit analysis tends to promote a policy-minimalizing “event specific catastrophism” – seeking above all to prevent simply the next, serial terrorist attack, with however no greater strategic vision. Indeed, the article says in conclusion (as Philip Bobbitt has noted) cost benefit analysis is “relentlessly tactical,” not strategic; it also tends toward serial ‘event specific catastrophism’ as its analytic frame; and it is a method of evaluating proposed courses of action, not generating them, and hence promotes a strategically questionable tendency to reaction as a response to terrorism. This article presents these ideas in brief fashion, however, as the first draft in a larger project on cost benefit analysis and counterterrorism, and it does so by reference to a book that is unabashedly crude in its approach to both cost benefit analysis and terrorism/counterterrorism. The critical project will extend beyond this particular article, which is in effective a a first pass at developing a critique. It is also an article that does not extend beyond events of early 2007 (when the original address was given) and should be read in that light.

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