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Opportunity Cost: Snowden and the NSA Leak

“Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

-Atticus Finch

 The first chapter in every economics textbook out there outlines two main ideas.  The first is that economics is the study of scarcity, which does not matter for our purposes right now.  The second is opportunity cost.

To put it simply, opportunity cost is not the price or dollar value of a good but the next best alternative good or activity that must be forgone or sacrificed. For example, say your favorite movie is playing, and you have a final exam the next day.  The opportunity cost of the movie is not the price of the ticket but the two hours that you would have spent studying and perhaps the better grade you forgo for not having studied those two extra hours. It’s also the other goods you sacrifice when you decide to use $10 to buy a ticket.

The idea of opportunity cost originally arises from Jeremy Bentham’s theories on Utility.  The idea of utilitarianism is that human beings want to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  This was a justification for all self-interested behavior that occurred.

Friedrich von Wieser then builds on Bentham’s seemingly simple theories of utility.  Wieser believes that when we are trying to achieve a certain goal, we must keep the costs in mind.  So while we are trying to maximize pleasure, and minimize pain, there are costs to doing so.  He does not come up with the original theory of opportunity cost, nor is this explicitly discussing opportunity cost. However, he does streamline the thought in that direction.  If there is something we want to do, we are going to give up the opportunity to do something else.

Opportunity cost seems simple enough, but doesn’t really seem to have a huge effect on us, or the world around us.  I don’t make a decision to do something because I am thinking, “well, the opportunity cost of this one is lower, so I should probably do that.”  However, it is evident in many decisions that we make, whether we explicitly think it or not.

Let’s take Edward Snowden’s decision. He leaked NSA secrets, and now has to seek asylum in another country. He can never come home.  He can no longer live in the country where he was born and raised.  He decided that that making sure American citizens knew the truth was greater than the cost of never being allowed back into the United States again.  For Snowden, the opportunity cost of exercising his citizenship and protecting first amendment rights was much greater than sacrificing his citizenship. By his standards, he made a morally correct decision and one that might even be deemed patriotic.  However, he now has to pay the (opportunity) cost of that morally correct, difficult decision.  If the cost of losing his home country had been greater than his “responsibility” to leak this information, it would not have happened. But it’s hard to put a price on freedom.

In my mind, Snowden made the correct decision.  He made sure that we all, as American citizens, had access to information about the extent of government surveillance of private citizens. However, for many the opportunity cost of taking action, resisting, pushing back is often too high, leading them to make different decisions.  Not everyone is Atticus Finch.

Would you have been able to make the decision Snowden did?  Would you have sacrificed your personal well being for the greater good? Or, would the opportunity cost have been too high for you?


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