The Corner

Asteroid Impact

A couple of readers have taken the following line: “Am I the only one, Mr.

Derbyshire, who thinks that piling this asteroid situation on the President

illustrates a disease of our times? It seems everyone believes the holder

of the office is king, God, the all-powerful being on the planet. Why

shouldn’t the government just say, ‘The asteroid is on the way, we don’t

know where it may hit, sea or land or miss us altogether. Now my fellow

citizens, make your own decisions about fleeing or staying put, and God

bless us all.’ This President-as-God mentality typifies the inability to

think of those who stupidly nod their heads when Kerry says he’s going to

create 10M jobs. Why not 20M? Why not Full Employment? The asteroid is on

the way… look to the top politician in the land to have the Answer.”

Sorry, but I disagree. I yield to nobody (except, of course, libertarians)

in my preference for letting people find their own way through life’s

hazards and dilemmas, but government does have SOME functions, this is

presents the Executive with a nontrivial problem.

Suppose the best advice coming to the Executive is: “There is one in a

thousand chance that this thing will strike. If it strikes, it will be in

the North Atlantic, and the tidal waves will wipe out our coastal cities –

all of them. Strike, or closest approach, is three days from now…”

Now then: what does the Executive do? Broadcast the news? If you do THAT,

there is the certainty of mass panic, with people stampeding out of Miami,

Boston, New York, etc. Disruption and dislocation would be immense, loss of

life huge, breakdown of social order etc. Keep quiet, and the odds are only

one in a thousand. PLUS, if you broadcast the news, survive the following

mass panic, and the darn thing misses us; and then, 20 years later, the same

situation comes up, will anybody listen?

Or substitute your own number there for the odds. One in a hundred? One in

ten thousand? As I said, it’s a nontrivial problem. And as always,

libertarianism is not very good at coping with nontrivial problems.

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