The Corner

Precaution

Jonah: The “precautionary principle” drives me batty. In principle (so to speak), I’m all for it. It’s a profoundly small-c conservative concept. It urges humility and restraint in all areas of life, including public policy, where it serves as a useful guard against the unintended consequences that so often accompany Big Plans.

Then there’s its actual application by guys like Thomas Friedman, who deploy it whenever they find it helpful to their political agenda and ignore it when they don’t.

In his NYT column today, Friedman says there’s a greater than 1-percent chance that our planet is in the midst of a human-made global-warming disaster. So he wants to take action, which he likens to buying an insurance policy. But the very same logic could be used against kneecap-and-trade and all of the other draconian schemes that the environmental left has concocted: There’s a greater than 1-percent chance that their hubris will impoverish the world through strangling regulations and accomplish nothing in the face of a phony problem. In this context, the precautionary principle urges us to avoid buying Friedman’s expensive and risky insurance policy.

It takes sound judgment to know when the precautionary principle makes sense and when it doesn’t. Everything else is just rhetoric.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of Friedman and his foresight, let’s remember that he once wrote these words in one of his tiresome attacks on missile defense:

If [our enemies] are so crazy and hell-bent on attacking America, why aren’t they doing it now, when there is no missile shield, and all they have to do is drive a truck bomb across the Mexican border or release a bio-weapon in Washington?

That was four months before 9/11. Today, Friedman still thinks we don’t need missile defense, even though our enemies are close to having weapons much more powerful than Mexican truck bombs. Or hijacked airplanes.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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