Can-Be/Is

There are a couple of stories that have been in the news lately that brought to my attention an interesting aspect of policy. The Can-Be/Is dichotomy.

There are some things that we, as a society, just accept are always bad. Murder, biological weapons, spiders. (Okay, maybe it’s just me on the spiders.) We may differ on how to minimize them, but there’s no substantive arguments that they shouldn’t be limited as much as possible. Other things (abortion, gay marriage) are the subject of argument, but these are black/white, up/down arguments about the basic morality of the thing in question.

But there are way more things which are controversial because they can be bad.

The two stories that caught my eye were the flap over GMO crops and the story about the NSA routinely filing away telephone call metadata for (if necessary) future analysis. Neither of these things is inherently bad. Some GMO crops are valuable to the functioning of our food supply. Analysis of phone records can bring terrorists to justice. Similarly, both of these things can be bad. (A genetic mistake could devastate an ecosystem. Poorly policed governmental spying could become 1984.)

Neither of these particular stories bothered me. I’ve been eating GMO food, fat, dumb and happy, for years. (Probably decades.) And if the NSA  wants to analyze who I call and for how long… more power to them. They will, of course, be incredibly bored by the results. (Though, if they have any ideas about a cheaper calling plan, I’m open to their suggestions.)

But there are plenty of other Can-Be issues that really do concern me: personal gun ownership, hard drug use, spiders. (C’mon. Have you ever actually seen a tarantula? Yikes!)

What’s interesting to me is that these kinds of things don’t seem to follow any party/ideological lines. A gun or a GMO ear of corn can be bad, and a lot of liberal folks will campaign hard to get rid of it. An ounce of coke or a porn mag can be bad, and a lot of conservative folks will campaign hard to get rid of it.

So, what’s the difference then? Is it a disagreement about the likelihood of the bad outcome? About the probable severity of that outcome? Is there any way to parse these issues to get to the core of why some can-be issues bother some people, and others don’t?

I don’t really know. If you were expecting an actual conclusion to this post, I’m going to have to apologize right now. I just wanted to get this overall concept down before I forgot it.

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