Conservative Hypocrisy. Big Government Is Fine, When We’re Afraid.
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
White-hot conservative and libertarian anger at the size and intrusiveness of government is getting a lot of attention these days. It seems so fierce, so single-minded; Let the federal government default. Let the uninsured die. But two recent events in Texas illustrate how another emotion, fear, has much more influence on our views about how much government is too much. Those events illustrate how simplistic the ‘smaller government’ anger is, and how when we’re afraid, even to the most arch conservatives, big and intrusive government that keeps us safe, is just fine.
Consider first the fight many Texans put up when Governor/Presidential Candidate Rick Perry’s tried to mandate the HPV vaccine , to protect women from cervical cancer. The strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV) that cause that disease are spread by sexual contact. The HPV vaccine protects against those strains, so Governor Perry ordered that all girls in Texas be vaccinated. In a cloud of conservative/libertarian dust, the posse of the legislature rode in and shot that mandate dead, arguing against it (in part) as more big intrusive government.
Now consider the response in Texas when the state started something called a No Refusal law enforcement program, a program even more restrictive of personal freedom than the vaccine mandate, to reduce drunk driving. Texas is one of the worst states in the country for drunk driving, with thousands of arrests and nearly 1,000 deaths each year. Searching for solutions, a couple years ago a few counties adopted a program called No Refusal, under which drunk driving suspects who refuse to blow into a breathalyzer (since the sanctions for refusing to blow are usually less severe than the sanctions if you’re convicted of DUI) have to allow the police to draw blood from their bodies. Under No Refusal, the government can stick a needle in you and take your blood, and you can’t say no. How’s that for Big Brother!?
You’d think there would be a hue and cry, right? Especially in these Tea Party times this year on the July 4th holiday weekend, the symbolic date on which we celebrate liberty and freedom (and when drunk driving soars), when with widespread publicity Texas rolled out the No Refusal program statewide . Especially among a population with a strong sense of personal independence and a common concern that government is already too intrusive.
In fact, there was nary a peep, except from a few of the drunk drivers who refused to blow, who were then taken to a special van where a judge was waiting to issue the warrant, a trained phlebotomist was waiting to draw the blood, and other officials were ready to process the paperwork. The No Refusal program pre-assembles all the resources to facilitate the whole process, and hits the road on weekends and holidays when drinking and driving are more common. It also advertises widely that cops and judges and the whole kit will be out there waiting, vampire needles ready, if you drive drunk. The idea is to deter the dangerous behavior, not catch offenders.
It works. Warned that their chances of getting caught were higher, and that they couldn’t ‘refuse to blow’ and wiggle out of the steepest penalties if they got caught, the number of people driving drunk dropped dramatically, as did drunk driving injuries and deaths. And over the three years it’s been in use in a few Texas counties, the blood evidence drawn under No Refusal has produced a higher conviction rate for drunk drivers prosecuted for injuring or killing somebody; “Juries like blood evidence,” said Montgomery County District Attorney Warren Diepraam, who initiated the program a few years ago. No Refusal is starting up in 8 states, and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration promotes it.
Why didn’t the No Refusal program provoke the libertarian/conservative furor the vaccine mandate did? Well, as serious a problem as cervical cancer may be, it’s not something that threatens the entire population directly, certainly not the way drunk driving does. It’s easy to oppose a government mandate about a risk that doesn’t threaten you. When you’re not afraid, conservative views about the size and intrusiveness of government are not in conflict with feeling safe.
But far more of us are worried about drunk driving. That risk directly threatens us all, and we’re constantly reminded about the danger in the news. When the government imposes on personal freedom but does so in a way that makes us feel safer, well, that’s what government’s for, right...to protect us from threats we can’t protect ourselves from individually. When we’re afraid, we’re willing to accept bigger or more intrusive government, because fear – which is the conscious expression of our fundamental subconscious drive to survive – easily trumps most other emotions.
That’s why, after the 9/11 attacks, many frightened Americans, both liberals and libertarians, were ready to allow the government more authority to snoop into our private lives. It’s why one of the biggest expansions of government in the history of the United States - creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) - went through with practically no resistance, promoted by one of the most conservative presidential administrations America has ever known. It’s why when a few people objected to the more revealing new back-scatter X ray imposed in airport security screening last fall, and called for an Opt Out Day, most of us didn’t opt out. Even those with objections to bigger more intrusive government set their conservative or libertarian anger aside and subjected themselves to a machine that can see them practically naked, a direct government ‘invasion’ of privacy in a most intimate way, in the name of feeling safe.
It’s easy to tap the popular anger that government is too big, too intrusive of our individual freedoms. The Republican presidential candidates are competing to prove they’re the anti-big government angriest of all, particularly to the voters in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, where the official motto is “Live Free or Die” and a stunning 80% of drunk driving suspects refuse to take a breathalyzer test. New Hampshire doesn’t employ No Refusal. Yet. It would be interesting to see what people who prefer less government, not more, would say about the idea. And those candidates. Because despite the easy simplistic heat of anti-government passion, most people, even the Tea Party fire-breathers, are in truth motivated by a slightly more flexible motto; “Live Slightly Less Free, But Live.”
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