Should the government have policies to deal with fear of zombies?

Would you vote to be protected from him?

From the always sublime Dara O’Briain:

I give out when people talk about crime going up, but the numbers are definitely down. And if you go, “The numbers are down”, they go, “Ahh, but the fear of crime is rising.” Well, so fucking what? Zombies are at an all-time low level, but the fear of zombies could be incredibly high. It doesn’t mean you have to have government policies to deal with the fear of zombies.

But let’s look at this in more detail. If there was a large demand for it, should the government have policies to deal with the fear of zombies? By zombies, we do mean non-existent flesh-eating fictional undead monstrosities that don’t exist.

If we model governments as representative democracies, with the elected officials using their own judgement to best follow the broad wishes of their constituents, then it’s clear that they shouldn’t do anything about the fear of zombies. Virtually everyone is ignorant about most everything (we can’t be experts in more than a few domains), so the politician, with access to research institutes and civil service advice, should make their decision in our best interest. There are designs for governments – such as futarchy – that explicitly seek to distinguish between values and beliefs, making the politicians follow values while figuring out the beliefs separably.

This “it’s in their best interests” approach is at its strongest when the voters’ preferences are inconsistent. For instance, voters often claim they would like the government to follow such and such economic approach, but they base their voting decisions strongly on the actual economic growth they experience. In this case, there’s a pretty strong case that politicians should ignore voter’s stated preferences, and go along with their revealed preferences.

But if there were a significant voting block clamouring for Zombie protection, and they based their voting on that, election after election, then I feel it isn’t unreasonable that the government should consider doing something about it. The electorate have the right to be wrong, even consistently wrong, and part of the democratic contract is that we have to accept to bear the costs of this. It isn’t healthy for governments to consistently overriding the views of the electorate.

But how should they deal with the fear of zombies? One approach would be education: explain again and again to the voters that they have nothing to fear, that the non-existent zombies might be alas terrifying, but they remain fortunately non-existent. But this is unlikely to work (successive governments have completely failed to convince the population of the recent plunge in criminality) and could result an intrusive and excessive propaganda campaign inimical to democracy.

So it seems the government should consider taking action to protect the population from a non-existent threat. If the actions were expensive, then they shouldn’t (and most likely wouldn’t) be considered. Acting irrationally like this is a luxury; if the costs get too high, then the case simply ignoring the issue gets stronger, as the extra money will have to come out of someone’s pocket or services.

But policies constructed to deal specifically with a panic are unlikely to be good. If the fear of zombies resembles a moral panic – if for instance, a particular group is scapegoated for being a source of the zombie threat – then these measures should be resisted, on minority rights grounds. Even without that, the measures passed in fear lead generally to security theater - useless policies that feel good for the population, such as gratuitously putting more “bobbies on the beat”. It’s not hard to see why such measures feel so attractive (“I see a policeman there, so I’m safe from mugging right now”) but can make little difference (someone is still likely to get mugged whenever or wherever the policeman isn’t around). And these security measures are often hard to get rid of, as no bureaucrat is willing to cancel the measures and take the blame if something does go wrong.

Here, though, the non-existence of zombies works in our favour. The whole point of these measures is to make security theater; and the bureaucratic disincentive is reduced: it’s not as if there would be any zombie outbreaks if some official decided to suspend these measures. Plus, this may allow some useful measures (such as increasing food reserves), to be smuggled in under the banner of zombie defense. But there are other costs to going along with security theater: it creates a large constituency of people benefiting from these policies who would want to keep them (anti-zombie security guards, anti-zombie training lecturers, shops selling patented anti-zombie knee slicers) and more people would become fearful of zombies and start taking the zombie threat seriously.

It is precisely to avoid this official approval that governments are often reluctant to fund some pseudo-scientific fields. The costs may initially appear trivial, but it legitimizes the field, and makes it harder to resist calls for funding from similar domains. Then again, the British National Health Service already funds homeopathy, a wholly regrettable state of affairs. The sums involved though, remain modest (£152, 000, apparently), and, whatever the signals it sends out, there is no sign it has lead to an explosion of pseudo-science in the NHS. Something like £152, 000 for widely demanded but useless anti-zombie measure might seem an acceptable use democratically assigned public funds.

Some might claim that their fear of zombies is based on religious beliefs (which is not at all implausible given the origin of the zombie myth). There is a long-standing and broadly approved tradition of giving religious beliefs special accommodations in society, so this would strengthen the argument for anti-zombie policies. But equally, to prevent abuse of these privileges, they are normally only accorded to large well established religions, a bar it is unlikely zombie-fear would reach for many generations.

From the politicians’ perspectives, there is an extra consideration: if they fail to pander, other politicians will, thus depriving them of votes for their other, much more important policies. Meeting the anti-zombie brigade half-way would at least allow reduce the negative impact, rather than staying uselessly out of power and watching the other side implement the full gamut of anti-zombie policies. This does have consequences, though: it shifts the Overton window on the subject, and can ratchet up demands for more measures that were not initially intended. The shifting attitude of the political left in Europe towards immigration restrictions is an example of such as transformation.

So, should governments have policies to deal with fear of zombies? Well, only if they’re heavily demanded by the public, cheap to implement, unlikely to grow more expansive, and unlikely to set unfortunate precedents. But in that case, I think these policies are a luxury we should afford.

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4 Responses to Should the government have policies to deal with fear of zombies?

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    Of course, a big question is whether zombie fear calming is a legitimate function of the government. If one takes the minimalist position that governments get their legitimacy by protecting the rights of citizens, then it looks problematic. Nobody’s rights are infringed by being worried about zombies, and having to use coercive taxation power to gain the extra resources needed is hence not legitimate.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      You libertarians aren’t going to be popular if you keep on taking these controversial anti-anti-zombie stances! Are you a zombie lover – or maybe a zombie yourself? Won’t anyone think of the children?!?!?

      On a more serious note, should a government act to reduce fear of invasion by Oceania, if they knew that there was in fact no risk of invasion, but the population was convinced there was? In other words, should a minimalist government act only to protect people’s property, or also act to protect their expected future ownership of property as well? Especially since the expectation of losing their property prevents people from currently using it as they would wish to?

  • Dave Frame says:

    This is one of those perception of risk vs risk things, which is also an elite opinion vs democratic opinion things. There are loads of cases like this [eg http://www.learner.org/courses/envsci/unit/text.php?unit=6&secNum=8 where the public perception of risk is out of whack with actual, observed risk (or with expert assessments). Nuclear power is a poster child here. There’s an interesting two-pronged approach to some popular arguments against nuclear power/against GMO/for zombie protection/etc and that’s to (1) argue against the risk assessment and risk preferences of the experts, which opens a gap for (2) arguments that there is no political mandate for nuclear power/GMO/non-protection from zombies. In the case of nuclear power/GMOs you hear arguments about how you cannot be *absolutely sure* they’re safe, coupled with arguments that, given this non-zero probability, the downside risks are unacceptable. The next step is to say that the public endorse this reading of risks, and that given public opinion, there is no mandate for nuclear power/GMOs. It’s interesting because it uses the fact that probabilities of failure are finite, and couples them to beliefs about huge downside risks (which are at odds with expert assessments) before recycling these stories as the will of the people. So basically it turns on being able to tell a very scary story which “cannot be ruled out”, selling this to people, and recycling it as the emergent opinion of the people. It’s not rational, of course, but it’s often quite effective. Disturbingly so, in some cases.

  • Hume says:

    The analogy to zombies in the original comment is flawed. The one single feature shared by (nearly) all who believe that political society is (or can be) justified is the provision of the rule of law. An essential good created by the rule of law is the *belief* that laws will be followed. As a result, a growing fear that laws will not be observed is an important problem that a political community ought to deal with. Otherwise, the good of reciprocity is jeopardized and pre-emptive strike appears more and more to be the rational option. (The proper *means*, of course, is much too complex to deal with here.)

    The case of zombies, on the other hand, is one of a non-existent *external* threat. As such, the analogy does not hold. A fear of international rivals that do not exist does not pose the same *type* of threat posed by a belief in *internal* rivals. It is not as immediate and does not threaten the very foundations upon which political society is justified (even if we are inclined to recognize “national security” as the type of good necessary to justify government existence).

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