Need To Keep Fingers Off The Panic Button

Public health advocates describe Australia’s binge drinking as an “epidemic” for a reason. Real epidemics have a frightening unpredictability. They are completely out of human control. An epidemic – think the 1918 influenza epidemic or the Black Death – inspires base, primal terror.

So when someone describes a lifestyle choice (a non-contagious lifestyle choice, at that) using such evocative language, it’s pretty obvious they’re trying to manipulate us.

In his new book, Panic, David Marr argues that Australia’s political culture is dangerously susceptible to outbreaks of hysterical fear.

This is absolutely right. We’re scared of Facebook predators and cybercrime, GM food and Chinese investors buying farms. The Occupy crowd harbours a bundle of conspiracies and neuroses about capitalism and Wall Street.

Remember when, in 2006, climate change activist Tim Flannery told us to “picture an eight-storey building by a beach, then imagine waves lapping its roof”? If that wasn’t hyperbole designed to inspire fear, what would be?

Marr focuses on what he sees as a few key panics: those over boat people, multiculturalism, suspected domestic terrorists, radical imams, offensive speech, Bill Henson and recreational drugs.

We can all play this game: like it or not, panic is bipartisan.

Panic is overreaction. We panic when the likelihood of an extremely adverse event seems greater than it really is. It’s extremely unlikely that a new global war will erupt or Chinese farm investors will immediately poison our food supply, but people still worry about it.

The policy consequences of panic are significant. In a society of panic, we no longer believe individuals can judge the riskiness of their own choices by themselves. Instead: there ought to be a law. The government should manage our risk for us. Virtually the whole regulatory apparatus is founded on the idea of panic.

It is panic that gives us the nanny state and helicopter parenting. It is panic which inspires the more than 6000 new pages of legislation that the federal Parliament passes every year. It is panic that has removed swings and monkey bars from school playgrounds across the country.

When governments try to manage risk, our ability to cope with future unknowns diminish. The more governments protect us, the more susceptible to panic we become.

Governments and political partisans have a vested interest in panic. Obviously, politicians push legislative agendas for lots of reasons. But they require public support to get them through. And few emotions spur us into action better than fear.

So every side of politics massively overstates the negative consequences of not supporting their preferred policies.

The apocalyptic tones of many climate activists are only the most obvious.

Oppositions pretend law and order problems are much worse than they are by claiming the government has lost control of our streets. This is an easy one: fear of crime has little relationship to the crime rate.

Most ludicrously, sports lobbyists say if we don’t keep funding the Australian Institute of Sport, then we won’t win Olympic medals and our national pride will plummet.

We were once told to panic about witchcraft. Now we’re told to panic about obesity and drinking. But how much attention we give the professional panic-mongers is up to us.