Monday, August 2, 2010

The paradox of security: Is it time to unlock?

We just finished a wonderful house exchange with a lovely family from Chinon, France. After getting to know each other through a home exchange website, and skyping a few times, we exchanged houses and cars. We got a month in the Loire and an extra special vacation at their summer home in Belle Isle, and they got a month in Northern California. We used their car to visit dozens of castles and historic sites. They used ours to visit Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and the Hearst Castle. Each of us saved thousands of dollars/euros that we could spend having more fun, or keep in the bank for another occasion, all because we were able to trust each other.

The only sour note in the whole exchange was on our end. Our Honda minivan went into the body shop for some significant repairs just before the exchange and was delivered after we had left for France. While undergoing repair the battery had to be removed. As a result the audio visual system (a life saver if you are driving long distances with kids) reset and could only be restarted with a code designed to frustrate thieves. However the only people frustrated were our house exchange partners and us. Having had no thefts in five years I had long ago mislaid the code. I wonder how often security systems end up preventing the rightful owners of goods and services, or their authorized guests, from actually enjoying what they have spent good money on.

Putting the two experiences together made me think about how much our economy is burdened with the extraordinary fears of crime we have built up over forty years of endless wars on crime and terror. I'm not just talking about our expensive and largely counter-productive prison system, but all the ways our (un)civil society is taxed with costly efforts to prevent victimization. Think about the costs to schools which spend their time searching for drugs or putting students through various searches and disciplinary procedures, rather than educating them. Think about the costs to businesses of policing their customers and employees to prevent crime rather than producing or delivering the goods and services they actually went into business to do. Think about how miserable an experience air travel has become due to security procedures that cannot begin to protect us against the next innovation in terror, or the wonderful tools of our computer/internet age that stop in their tracks because of invisible security protocols.

Faced with the worst economy since the Great Depression, and no real prospects for consumers to lift us out of it with new spending, I wonder if a widespread movement to unlock American society would not produce the kind of burst of energy and efficiency we need to get the economy moving again. It is true that locking down our society produced a fair amount of economic activity, but at what costs and for how much longer? With our communities about as fortified as can be imagined, higher energy costs setting limits on building yet more gated communities in the exurbs, and crime as low as its been in 40 years, we have probably spent as much as we can on locking things down.

Moreover, while the economic benefits of lock down have gone along with making our society more rigid and less efficient, unlocking goes along with increases in efficiency and lower costs. Consider how a less fear based lifestyle in central cities with public transit, nearby parks, and homes in walking distance from schools and businesses can yield lower energy costs, lower health costs (as people walk their way to less obesity) and time freed from commuting that can be spent starting new businesses or raising our children to require less professional intervention. Consider how schools freed from drug testing, locker searches, and crime prevention curriculum could get back to actually educating our children.

Economists have always recognized that market economies rely on trust. Of course people will sometimes betray that trust, and I'm not advising anyone to leave their house unlocked or their most sensitive files unprotected. But a society that has come to base itself on fear is now a society facing a declining standard of living for the first time in its history. Is it time to unlock?

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