The Corner

On the Perils of Government by ‘Psychological Necessity’

On the homepage, Dr. Marc Siegel proposes that the United States should impose “a travel ban against the Ebola-afflicted countries in West Africa.” That ban “may not be medically necessary or even advisable,” Siegel concedes, “but it is psychologically necessary.”

“First and foremost,” he continues,

although we are members of the world health community, we must worry about our own public psyche here in the United States. If our leaders can’t give us a sense that we are protected, we must achieve it by imposing a ban.

“This,” Siegel acknowledges, ”isn’t strictly a medical argument.”

Its not, no. Indeed, I might go one further: This isn’t strictly an argument at all.

Spelling it out, Siegel writes:

I don’t believe that a travel ban against the Ebola-afflicted countries in West Africa will be particularly effective, it may even be counterproductive, and it certainly isn’t coming from the strongest side of what being an American means. But as fear of Ebola and fear of our leaders’ ineptitude grows, I think we must have a ban to patch our battered national psyche.

It is not an overstatement to say that this way of thinking represents pretty much everything that I stand against. First off, the notion that governments are instituted among men to mold and to soothe the “national psyche” is misguided in the extreme. It is civil society, not Washington D.C., that should be providing a free people with purpose and meaning. Want to feel good about yourself? Join a club. Buy a bottle of wine. Go to church. Don’t seek political drugs from Washington.

More important, though, is that the idea is downright dangerous, serving as the ugly midwife to all sorts of irrational and insidious claims. Every time you hear it said that ”something must be done,” or that “grieving communities needs to see some — any — action,” or that to have a plan of any kind is better than to remain circumspect, the speaker is likely indulging in exactly this form of nonsense. And this really matters. As history teaches us, vague and opaque appeals to “psychological necessity” are the grease that helps along all liberty killing initiatives: among them, bans on firearms that look “scary” but that serve no special purpose; creeping restrictions on speech and conscience; spending that does naught; laws that have fluffy sounding names but change precisely nothing; and rules that serve to elevate security over liberty. The idea that the government should act to make the public feel better, moreover, has established and entrenched our modern Cult of the Savior Politician. Is this really the road we wish to go down?

If there is a good case to made in favor of a travel ban — and, although I am not quite sure where I come down, I think that there absolutely is — then it should be made. If there isn’t, then it should not. As a general rule, if one finds oneself saying that “a proposed measure will not work, but . . .,” — or, worse, that it might even be “counterproductive” — one might wish to reconsider one’s priorities.

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