In the world of risk analysis, complex formulas weigh the cost of protective measures against the potential for harm. In the hyper-conservative field of nuclear power, for example, double and triple redundancy provides safety margins even for incredibly low-probability events.
Sometimes these calculations are done incorrectly. When a Siberian tiger escaped its enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo and killed a teenager in 2007, Jack Hanna said the width of the moat made it “virtually impossible” for a tiger to jump. Not good enough, considering the harm that occurred, and which engineers should have been anticipated.
Here is the relevant point: harm can also come from being too timid or overcautious. And this applies to political risks as well as mechanical systems.
A nuclear generating plant can be made so safe that it no longer reliably supplies electricity, the loss of which has its own safety implications. Life-support machines in a hospital, to take an obvious case, must have constant electrical power. That’s why these formulas are more complicated than you might think. Low-IQ petty tyrants—the kind of people who gravitate to micromanaging other people’s lives—tend to forget, for example, that the safest possible airplane would be too heavy to fly.
These reflections were prompted by a recent discussion with Steve Hayward on PowerLine’s podcast. Hayward raised the possibility of holding a constitutional convention to fix some of our worst political dysfunctions. Conservatives traditionally, and with good reason, have opposed this idea because such a convention—once underway—might allow any crazy idea to get rammed through.
But the threat of a “runaway convention” now seems, to me at least, smaller than the risk of allowing America’s ruling elites to continue slowly smothering our liberties. So my response to Hayward about this danger was, “Let it run.”
After all, what is the worst that could happen? The constitutional checks and balances designed by the founders might go off track? That’s been happening for the last century, at least. We might open the door to illiberal ideas and practices like censorship, the denial of due process for political enemies, or criminal trials conducted under the overt threat of violence? Welcome to 2021.
The Declaration of Independence says revolutionary change—and a constitutional convention is just this side of a revolution—should not be undertaken for “light and transient causes.” We are well past that now.