The Diminishing Returns of Fear Mongering

All animals experience fear — human beings, perhaps, most of all. Any animal incapable of fear would have been hard pressed to survive, regardless of size, speed, or other attributes. Fear alerts us to dangers that threaten our well-being and sometimes our very lives. Sensing fear, we respond by running away, by hiding, or by preparing to ward off the danger. To disregard fear is to place ourselves in possibly mortal jeopardy.

Telling people not to be afraid is giving them advice they cannot take. Even the man who acts heroically on the battlefield, if he is honest, admits he is scared. “He would be a sort of madman or insensible person,” Aristotle wrote, “if he feared nothing, neither earthquakes nor the waves”. Our evolved psychological and physiological makeup predisposes us to fear actual and potential threats, even those that exist only in our imagination.

“And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of they life.” (Deuteronomy 28:66)

The people who have the effrontery to rule us, who dare call themselves our government, understand this basic fact of human nature. They exploit it, and they cultivate it. Whether they compose a warfare state or a welfare state, they depend on fear to secure popular submission, compliance with official dictates, and, on some occasions, affirmative cooperation with the state’s enterprise and adventures. Without popular fear, no government would endure more than twenty-four hours.

Some of the threats that induce subjects to submit to government in the hope of gaining its protection — and thereby calming their fears — may be real. I am not arguing that people who look to government for their salvation act entirely under the sway of illusory threats, although I do insist that nowadays, if not always, many public fears arise in large part if not entirely form stimulation by the government itself.

If the people’s fears may be (1) of the government itself, (2) of real threats from which the people look to the government for protection, and (3) of spurious threats from which the people look to the government for protection, we must admit that the relative importance of each type of fear varies with time and place. In every case, however, the government seeks to turn public fear to its own advantage.

Over the ages, governments refined their appeals to popular fears, fostering an ideology that emphasizes the people’s vulnerability to a variety of internal and external dangers from which their governors are represented to be their protectors. Government, it is claimed, protects the populace from external attackers and from internal disorder, both of which are portrayed as ever-present threats.

Sometimes the government, as if seeking to nourish this mythology with grains of truth, does protect people in this fashion — even the shepherd protects his sheep, but he does so to serve his own interest, not theirs, and when the time comes, he will shear or slaughter them as his interests dictate.

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” — H.L. Mencken, “Women as Outlaws”

But fear, like every other “productive” resource, is subject to the laws of production. Thus, it cannot escape the law of diminishing marginal productivity: beyond a certain point, as successive doses of fear mongering are added to the government’s “production” process, the incremental public clamor for governmental protection declines. The first time the government cries wolf, the public is frightened; the second time, less so; the third time, still less so.

If the government plays the fear card too much, it overloads the people’s sensibilities, and eventually they discount almost entirely the government’s attempts to frighten them further. Fear is a depreciating asset.

Robert Higgs
Whiskey & Gunpowder

March 4, 2011