The only thing we have to fear . . . is public policy arising from fear.
In early September, the Indianapolis City-County Council voted 19-10 to increase local income taxes by 0.5 percent to fund up to 150 new police officers by 2018. It sailed through. Members of both parties voted yes, and those voting against were relatively quiet in their comments. The reason: fear of crime.
An early example of fear controlling policy were the 1798 laws known as The Alien and Sedition Acts which allowed the government to imprison or deport individuals believed to be dangerous while restricting speech antagonistic to the government. The motivation was fear that elements of The French Revolution might take place in The United States. The fear proved groundless, and the acts were allowed to expire by about 1805. Of course, along the way, people were hurt.
In 1862, President Lincoln, on his own, suspended the right of habeas corpus, a provision in The Constitution which allows a court to order prison authorities to bring a prisoner to the court to determine whether his arrest is lawful. Civil war activities prompted his action, which was immediately challenged in court, and probably had little practical effect.
Early in World War II, President Roosevelt created internment camps for Japanese Americans. While an invasion of citizens’ rights, The Supreme Court approved the camps, widely viewed today as unconstitutional, but fear controlled the day.
Fear of Communism has been powerful since 1917, The Bolshevik Russian Revolution, and our involvement in World War I. The first “Red Scare,” 1919-1921 (partially documented in the movie “Reds) prompted numerous harassments and prosecutions of American citizens believed to be dangerous. The second Red Scare, known now as McCarthyism, produced the most egregious accusations and prosecutions of individuals of my lifetime. Merely reading documents about Communism, socialism and Marxism drew suspicion and threats, most notably the list of Hollywood personalities believed to have “leftist” leanings. In public life then, and to some extent today, a policy proposal, such as national health care, could be defeated by calling it communistic or socialistic. These feelings arose directly from World War II, Chinese Communists winning their civil war, and The Korean War. The fear led to The Vietnam War.
I was mildly affected by fear of Communism. Before my application for The Peace Corps was accepted in 1966, I signed a document stating that I was not a Communist. A civil service investigator asked my friends about my political beliefs, as well as whether I was gay. This mildly bothered me at the time, but I did not mind this indirect expression of patriotism. In retrospect, it seems over the top.
As Red scares emerged in the past, fear of Middle Eastern religions is emerging today. In casual conversations, some express strong opinions, such as “[they] all should be driven from our country.” I have read commentaries expressing fear of Sharia law. No doubt, terrorism on our soil and in Europe, violent confrontations in The Middle East and attacks on Christians, as well as recent beheadings, fertilize insecurities of many Americans. We must hope that these insecurities do not produce actions which damage the lives of innocent citizens.
In addition to the above, we see alarm about disease, same sex relationships, and use of drugs, which have led to drastic public policies and restrictions in other nations, and strong political movements in ours.
However, policies arising from fear usually turn out to be irrelevant, except to the many individuals hurt during periods of radical action, or to our pocket books when money is spent without purpose. Relative to powerful developments in the rest of the world, our $29 million to hire new police officers is small potatoes, but nevertheless demonstrates how policy is formulated without meaningful debate and understanding. I suppose the hypothesis is that more officers magically reduce crime, but so far no study has documented either a correlation or a cause and effect between crime rates and the number of enforcers. My guess is that no correlation exists, and that Indianapolis residents will merely have greater vulnerability to traffic tickets. Perhaps my view is naïve, but I do not recall any part of the proposal that states precisely what the new officers will do day to day, and how a larger department will face inevitable new management challenges. Like all the circumstances mentioned here, it seems like just another knee jerk reaction without substance.
John Guy is president of Wealth Planning & Management, LLC, and author of “Middle Man, A Broker’s Tale.”