No End to Dumb

April 2, 2010

Comparisons like these, from the blog that is neither freaky nor economicsy (nor even moderately provocative), drive me to the brink of bonkersdom:

I realize you don’t have the data in front of you, but hazard a quick guess. Which has received more media coverage: 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined; or the repeal of the nationwide 55 mph speed limit? You probably guessed the former. But there’s a good case to be made that the answer should be the speed limit. Why?

According to a recent paper by Lee S. Friedman, Donald Hedeker, and Elihu D. Richter, the lifting of the federal 55 mph speed limit in 1995 was responsible for 12,545 deaths between 1995 and 2005. That’s about 45 percent more American fatalities than we have suffered in 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan put together. And all those human tragedies are due not to weighty national security imperatives but to the fact that we all want to go just a little bit faster.

Seriously? That’s the comparison? There are lots and lots of things that cause more deaths than the Iraq war: earthquakes, cancer, malaria, anorexia, suicide, murder, and yes, speed limits. But this comparison is fundamentally mistaken, and we have plenty of ways of expressing this mistake in our moral vocabulary. I shouldn’t need to spell this out, but here, I’ll take a stab.

For one thing, deaths by auto accident are inevitable in a way that wars are not — cutting down the speed limit only decreases the occurrences of this inevitability. For another thing, deaths by auto accident are generally speaking ‘accidents’, which is usually not the case with wars.  Add to that that 9/11 involved a team of nine murderous crazy people flying airplanes into buildings on a sunny Tuesday morning, Afghanistan resulted as an effort to send legions of American soldiers into a dysfunctional Hobbesian nightmare, and Iraq was ultimately authorized by bringing deadly vials of Guernica juice and yellow cake to the international pity party. I could go on, but I won’t. The comparison is too stupid to warrant further discussion.

Here’s what caught my eye. The red is mine:

Is the trade-off of safety for speed worth it? This may be more of a question for a philosophy professor than a transportation scholar. But there is one point I feel strongly about. Even if the effects of the higher speed limits are very small, as skeptics believe, the disappointing thing about this debate is that it is conducted on the pages of a handful of obscure academic journals and the occasional newspaper article on page B12, as opposed to front and center in the public eye.

No, that’s a question for an economics professor, not a philosophy professor. Economics professors ask whether such-and-such an action is worth it, and then they (or, at least, some of them) pretend that they can answer the question about whether we should do such-and-such an action based on whether or not it’s worth it. Philosophers, even utilitarians, generally like to take the wider view. Sure, we ask whether we should take such-and-such an action, but we also ask why.

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