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On the Paradox of Success

By James Piereson

Murphy's law says that if anything can go wrong it will go wrong; Parkinson's law tells us that work expands to fill up the time allocated to it. To these rules of perverse conduct we wish to add another which may be called the "Paradox of Success," to wit: the more successful a policy is in warding off some unwanted condition the less necessary it will be thought to maintain it. If a threat is successfully suppressed, people naturally wonder why we should any longer bother with it. This law might be named Mr. Magoo's law after the half-blind cartoon character who stepped through various unseen dangers (like open man-holes) while singing happily to himself. Alternatively, it might be called Sulzberger's law, the publisher of The New York Times, whose newspaper gives faithful expression to this paradox.

The Sulzberger-Magoo law is on frequent display in our personal conduct -- for example, in the woman who wonders why she should maintain a diet when her weight is at an acceptable level or in the golfer who wonders why he should maintain a practice regimen once he has reduced his handicap by five strokes or in the student who asks why he should continue studying so hard when he has succeeded in raising his grades from C to A or in the patient who wonders why he should keep taking his medicine when he has not had an attack in more than a year. These measures, difficult to maintain, have so far succeeded in their aim. Yet for this reason it seems unnecessary to maintain them.

The paradox of success seems everywhere evident in the world of politics and public policy. There was a time a few decades ago when rates of violent crime were at unacceptable levels in American cities, so much so that many worried about the very future of urban life. In response to public demand, policy makers responded with a crack-down on crime by increasing penalties on convicted felons, sending them to jail for long terms, eliminating parole, and even imposing the death penalty for the most serious of crimes. Soon our prisons filled up and then crime rates began to fall, in some places (like New York City) to levels not seen since the early 1960s when the modern crime wave began. Yet instead of concluding that the policy was a success, many politicians and editorialists, including those at The New York Times, conclude that there is little point in maintaining these harsh policies because crime is no longer a great threat. It does little good to point out that the crime rate is low precisely because these policies have been in place.

During the Cold War, many wondered why we had to develop new weapons systems or augment our military strength when it was clear that the Soviet Union would not dare to attack us (or our allies). Yet it may have been true that the Soviet Union did not threaten us because our military strength had been constantly augmented. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, many concluded that the internal dissolution of the Soviet Union proved that our military strategy had been unnecessary -- thus ignoring the fact that this strategy had contributed to the dissolution.

On a subject closer to home, many wonder why Wal-Mart stores should maintain their wage and benefit policies, along with their pricing policies, when they are so profitable and have so many customers. It is through such policies, of course, that these stores have been able to attract customers and accumulate profits. If Wal-Marts' critics would take a look at the condition of our auto-makers, Ford and Geneal Motors, they might recognize the perils of following their advice.

The paradox of success seems especially relevant to the debate that is now developing over the war on terror. Many acknowledge that the government's aggressive efforts to incarcerate terrorists and to disrupt their flow of money and communications have greatly impaired their capacity to launch sensational attacks of the kind that occurred five years ago. Yet for this reason many have now concluded that such efforts may no longer be necessary. James Fallows, for example, in a generally informative article in The Atlantic, concludes that "the global war on terror is over and . . . we have won." He suggests that the metaphor of "war" in relation to this threat is both exaggerated and counter-productive as it breeds anxiety among the public and over-reaction by the government. He recommends a change of emphasis in the direction of global development which will involve cleaning up the environment and eradicating disease and poverty in the Third World which he views as sources of anti-American extremism and terrorism.

The New York Times adds to this discussion with an article by Scott Shane and Lowell Bergman in Sunday's (September 10) Week in Review section. "As time has passed without a new attack," the authors write, "the voices of skeptics who believe that 9/11 was more a fluke than a harbinger are beginning to be heard." The authors quote John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, who says that "A perfectly plausible explanation is that there are no terrorists here." According to this line of reasoning that is rapidly gaining currency, the terrorist threat has been greatly exaggerated by the government as a result of a single devastating assault; the best evidence of this conclusion lies in the fact that there have been no attacks on American soil since then. It follows that the aggressive policies that have been part of the "war on terror" are no longer necessary -- if they ever were necessary in the first place.

This appears to be a perfect example of the paradox of success: the fact that there have been no further terrorist attacks is taken as evidence that the threat is exaggerated and the policies to deter them are not needed. This conclusion disregards the likelihood that the attacks have not occurred because preventative measures were taken to disrupt and impede them. Yet it was probably inevitable that the success of the war against terror would eventually encourage the conclusion that the war is no longer necessary. The danger in this is that in thinking the war has been won we will relax our guard, thus giving potential terrorists needed room to manuever and making another attack more likely. So it is that successful but difficult measures to deter and disrupt threats are difficult to sustain; indeed, the more successful they are the more difficult they are to sustain.

James Piereson is an occasional contributor to The New Criterion.

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