The Terrible 'Ifs'

9 Pages Posted: 13 Feb 2008

See all articles by Benjamin H. Friedman

Benjamin H. Friedman

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)


The United States employs a version of the precautionary principle when it confronts threats to national security. We spend vast amounts on defenses against threats unlikely to affect Americans. Experts, defense officials, and politicians justify those expenditures by saying they are necessary to protect the public from worst case dangers. The principle fails to acknowledge that decisions about risk, whether they regulate health hazards or arm against a state, cannot deal with one risk alone. Because resources are always limited, efforts to head off a particular danger take resources away from other government programs and from private investment that also reduce risk.

Keywords: defense spending, foreign threats, precautionary principle, risk preferences, risk perception, security, policy, terrorism

JEL Classification: D81, H56

Suggested Citation

Friedman, Benjamin H., The Terrible 'Ifs'. Regulation, Vol. 30, No. 4, Winter 2007-2008, Available at SSRN:

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Cato Institute ( email )

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Benjamin H. Friedman

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
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Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
United States

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