Trade-Offs between Civil Liberties and National Security: A Discrete Choice Experiment

By Finkelstein, Eric Andrew; Mansfield, Carol et al. | Contemporary Economic Policy, April 2017 | Go to article overview

Trade-Offs between Civil Liberties and National Security: A Discrete Choice Experiment


Finkelstein, Eric Andrew, Mansfield, Carol, Wood, Dallas, Rowe, Brent, Chay, Junxing, Ozdemir, Semra, Contemporary Economic Policy


We explore differences in perception of national security policies between self-identified liberals, moderates, and conservatives from a national sample of U.S. adults. Using a discrete choice experiment, we also quantify each group's willingness to trade off select policies in exchange for reduced risk of a 9/11-style terrorist attack. Relative to other groups, liberals are more likely to view such policies as ineffective and susceptible to government abuse. They also perceive a lower threat of terrorism. All groups are willing to make trade-offs between civil liberties and risk of a terrorist attack. However, loss of civil liberties affects liberals more than conservatives. (JEL D61, H41, H56)

I. INTRODUCTION

The September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks shocked the nation and the world, inflicting emotional and financial costs that would be impossible to fully enumerate. In an effort to prevent future attacks, in October 2001, President George W. Bush signed the USA Patriot Act into law. At that time, both liberals and conservatives overwhelmingly supported this law (it passed the Senate 98 to 1) which made it easier for government agencies to clandestinely gather intelligence, monitor and regulate financial transactions, and broadened the discretion of law enforcement and immigration authorities to detain, perhaps indefinitely, and/or deport immigrants suspected of terrorism-related acts, among other provisions. Major provisions of the law have been extended since 2001, once in 2005 by President Bush and again in 2011 by President Obama in the National Defense Authorization Act. This is despite growing concern that several aspects of the Act severely impinge upon civil liberties (Coghlan 2011; Kain 2011; Ramasastry 2005).

Beyond the Patriot Act, in 2003 then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques," including water boarding, where water is poured over the head of a captive to simulate the sensation of drowning (Greenberg, Rosenberg, and de Vouge 2008). These techniques became the subject of much public debate in the late 2000s. This debate subsided in 2009 when President Obama issued an executive order barring the CIA from using water boarding or similar interrogation techniques (Isikoff 2009).

Other policies, such as enhanced screening at airports, are seen both as an invasion of privacy and an inconvenience, and, not surprisingly, public support is mixed for these as well (Cohen and Halsey 2010). The June 2013 leak surrounding the National Security Agency's secret surveillance programs, which involved tracking citizens' phone calls and internet activity, reinvigorated public debate concerning how much leeway the government should have in its fight against terrorism. When it comes to these programs, reaction again is mixed; a Pew Research Center (2013) poll fielded within a month after the leak found that 51% of Americans view the programs as unacceptable. Putting legal issues aside, what these examples reveal is that, in an effort to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks, policymakers are faced with the delicate task of increasing the security of the nation without overly impinging on civil liberties or imposing an undue burden on the public.

Viscusi and Zeckhauser (2003) present a theoretical model depicting trade-offs between civil liberties and security. They present a series of indifference curves with varying levels of utility where individuals are indifferent between given bundles of civil liberties and security. They further assume that individuals have a perceived frontier (similar to a production possibilities frontier) that traces out the maximum perceived level of security associated with any given level of civil liberties. Optimality occurs at the tangency point: when individuals reach the highest possible indifference curve that does not extend beyond the perceived frontier.

Consistent with this model, a number of published studies have shown that Americans recognize and are willing to accept trade-offs between civil liberties and terrorism risk reduction (Davis and Silver 2004; Garcia and Geva 2014; Mondak and Hurwitz 2012). …

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