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Risks in the Modern World: What Prospects for Rationality?
Risks in the Modern World: What Prospects for Rationality?
March 01, 1995
Originally published in The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty
Risk refers to the likelihood that something will go wrong.
People naturally fear such mishaps, and risk aversion is a basic
survival trait. Only non-survivors rush in where angels fear to
Even in our relatively safe world, there is much
to fear: crime, disease, highway and other accidents. The surprising
issue is not that people fear, but that people should come to fear the
dynamic forces upon which America was built.
afraid of economic growth and technological advance, even though these
forces largely account for our current well-being. The prominence of
this attitude is a relatively new phenomenon; as recently as the 1950s,
American culture still revered science and technology. Scientists and
innovators were heroic figures, the Bell Science Hour was a popular
television series, and youngsters read Microbe Hunters with enthusiasm.
No longer. Today’s popular culture uses the scientist more as a
careless Dr. Frankenstein than a heroic Prometheus and views scientific
achievements as more evidence of man’s arrogance than man’s genius.
What accounts for the modern reaction?
The Wildavsky Legacy
than almost any analyst, the late Aaron Wildavsky examined why America
had become so frightened and, through his books Searching for Safety,
Risk and Culture (with Mary Douglas), and The Rise of Radical
Egalitarianism, among other works, he largely structured the debate
on reform of risk policy. Consider some of his basic concepts:
The safe and the dangerous are intertwined: Wildavsky was fond of the
Jogger’s Dilemma. Joggers, he noted, all too often drop dead of heart
attacks in mid-stride. The stress of exercise is too much for some
bodily systems to handle. Nonetheless, joggers are less likely to die
of heart disease than their sedentary colleagues and exercise provides
significant long-term health benefits. Jogging may be a “risky”
activity, but it tends to reduce the health risks that people face.
Wildavsky used this analogy to illustrate that safety and danger are
rarely separable, but rather inextricably mixed elements of life. The
conclusion, in Wildavsky’s view, was: We must not seek a “safe” course
but rather a “safer” course. To make our lives safer, we must prudently
accept the introduction of new risks.
• We search for
safety: Wildavsky noted that safety is discovered—not designed.
Increased safety results from a learning process. We try new things,
make mistakes, and learn from our experiences. Over time, risks are
reduced. This “trial by error,” evolutionary approach to a safer world
stands in sharp contrast to the “trial without error” approach demanded
in today’s highly politicized risk management world.
Wealthier is healthier: Money is not just wealth; it is also a measure
of our ability to fend off disasters. A wealthier population can buy
healthier food, live in safer neighborhoods, purchase higher quality
goods, see doctors more frequently. To Wildavsky, this suggested that
all risk reduction regulations should meet a minimum test: They must
save more people than they kill. Many of America’s more expensive
regulations fail this standard.
• Anticipation vs.
resilience: Wildavsky challenged the common belief that risks should be
avoided, that we should always look before we leap. He argued that in a
world where many, perhaps most, serious risks are surprises, the more
rational course is to improve our resilience—our ability to ride out
unexpected disasters. Greater wealth is one element of this strategy.
These common-sense approaches to risk championed by Wildavsky are
largely ignored in the policy arena. Politicized risk managers seem
obsessed with the risks of change but treat lightly the risks of
stagnation. The risks of going too fast are carefully examined, but the
risks of going too slow are largely ignored. Yet, as any bicycle rider
knows, speed can improve stability and enhance safety, though it can
also increase the damage from a fall. Once a society demands
unattainable levels of safety—a risk-free world—public policy becomes
divorced from reality. To an increasing extent, that is the situation
we are in.
Why Is America Afraid?
believed that the primary factor explaining modern attitudes toward
risk was the dramatic rise in the power of radical egalitarians—that
is, those who see all differences among the citizenry as evidence of
injustice. In a balanced culture, egalitarian values are tempered by
other viewpoints. The egalitarian impulse underlying the sentiment that
“all men are created equal” is counterbalanced by the notion that all
men must be free. However, like Alexis de Tocqueville before him,
Wildavsky noted that America has always been prone to egalitarian
excesses, and this tendency led to the current situation, particularly
after the Vietnam War radicalized a whole generation of intellectuals.
view differentiation itself as evil. Thus they oppose the “creative
destruction” that accompanies economic and technological change, since
change creates winners and losers. Egalitarians favor a “steady-state”
economy and thus view with suspicion the changes brought about by
economic and technological growth. They sympathize with claims that
cancer is caused by corporate malfeasance and that modern technology is
creating public health disasters. Their egalitarian preferences for a
world of sharing, of communitarian values, lead them to see the world
in stark Malthusian tones. They readily believe that the earth is
inherently fragile, that man’s activities threaten to warm or cool or
dry or flood the earth. A world at risk demands common sacrifice, and
compels us all to band together if we are to survive.
Wildavsky, modern environmentalism is best viewed as a restatement of
this egalitarian distaste for our modern society. However, he also
examined many of the standard arguments advanced by those supporting
modern attitudes toward risk:
• In the modern world,
environmental risks are extremely important: In this view, it is
rational to fear technology and industry, which have unleashed
dangerous involuntary risks on humankind. In fact, however, objective
data suggest that technology per se creates few public health concerns
of a magnitude comparable to those faced by primitive societies. For
example, relatively few cancers can be attributed to pollution,
occupational exposures and the like. People are living longer,
healthier lives than ever before. Environmental risks are still very
low compared to other existing threats. The world is not getting
riskier, it is getting safer, and the environmental concerns many
people fear are not very dangerous.
• Modern Americans are
more risk intolerant: In this argument, it is not that the world has
become riskier; but, rather, a wealthier, healthier population has
naturally become more concerned with risks. This argument seems
plausible. Earlier American leaders grew up during the Depression and
World War II and experienced serious dangers. In contrast, “baby
boomers” have experienced few real risks. Not surprisingly, therefore,
the boomers are more risk averse and demand a higher level of safety
than their parents. However, this explanation ignores the fact that
baby boomers, particularly those who agitate for government risk
regulation, have not displayed any great aversion to risky lifestyles.
They have experimented widely with potentially hazardous drugs,
promiscuous sex, and a wide array of other dangerous, albeit exciting,
recreational activities, from hang gliding to Third-World tourism.
Increased risk aversion per se does not appear to explain modern
attitudes toward risk, though it may have some influence.
There are risks and there are risks: To some, public attitudes toward
risk are a function not only of the “objective” magnitude of actual
risks, but also of the manner in which these risks occur. Risks that
are voluntary, visible, or reversible are more acceptable than risks
that are hidden, imposed, or permanent. This is the difference between
“hazards” (risks that are “legitimate”) and “outrages” (risks that are
not). This explanation has a surface plausibility.
risks are voluntary and which are not? Are the risks of living near a
nuclear plant, of drinking water that may contain low levels of
chemicals, or of sharing blood with strangers accepted voluntarily? Or
are they outrageous risks imposed on us by the nuclear industry,
manufacturers whose chemicals get into the water supply, and AIDS
carriers? Different people at different times seem to view the same
risks very differently. Environmentalists advocate limitations on
smoking in private restaurants, even though secondhand smoke is an
avoidable risk (and an inconsequential one in most cases as well).
However, they see nothing wrong with regulations that cause harm by
reducing wealth or denying technology. The fact that any risk may be
easily reclassified according to the values of the judging party makes
the distinction between voluntary and involuntary risk highly suspect.
America has enlarged its fear-promoting institutions: Since World War
II, risk regulatory agencies have seen their powers expanded and a host
of new agencies has been created. The alphabet soup of regulatory
offices—FDA, EPA, OSHA, FTC,
etc.—emphasizes certain risks and ignores others. These agencies are
assigned no responsibility for the risks of economic and technological
stagnation; they need consider only the possible risks from a new
product or process. Moreover, if such agencies are to maintain and
expand their staffs and budgets, they must persuade Congress that their
role is essential. That reality explains why EPA
pronouncements read as if they were written by Stephen King.
Environmental groups are under similar pressure in their drive to raise
funds. Incentives to arouse fear do help explain the growth of
anti-technology attitudes in America.
The Role of Culture in Risk Selection
recognized that modern attitudes toward risk had many causes, but he
believed the dominant factor remained cultural. The things we choose to
fear reflect our values more than knowledge about actual risks. We
select to fear those things that convince us that our deeply held
prejudices are valid. What else can explain our willingness to ignore
the vast ocean of natural carcinogens in which we live, while spending
literally tens of billions on the trivial quantities of pesticide
residues? Wildavsky believed that America’s intense preoccupation with
trivial risks reinforces egalitarian values. Finding threats in
economic activity and technological change allows us to castigate
business, condemn modern wealth distributions, and argue for a radical
restructuring of modern society.
What Is to Be Done?
improvement in risk management will require both reforming existing
institutions and expanding the scope of private risk management. The
latter is preferable, but political realities require attention to
short-run reforms in addition to long-term solutions.
Currently, the EPA
and other risk regulatory agencies are biased against change. These
agencies must be forced to consider the risks of economic and
technological stagnation as well as the risks of technology itself. How
might this be done? One way is to encourage “conflicts of interest”
within agencies’ goals—for example, all risk agencies should also have
the responsibility of promoting technology.
Such an approach
would reverse decades of “good government” reforms designed to separate
agencies devoted to safety from agencies focused on advocacy. Past
reforms gave the EPA control over
agricultural chemicals, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture was to
concern itself with farm output only. The idea was to make the EPA more focused on safety; but it also gives the EPA
little reason to consider the impact of pesticide regulations on
agricultural productivity, food prices, or product availability.
less ambitious step would be to create a new position in all regulatory
agencies to deal with new technologies. Appoint a Technology Ombudsman
charged with making a case for the earliest possible approval of the
broadest possible range of new technologies. In order to grow, the
office would have to demonstrate that the EPA
and other agencies are regulating too much, thus providing a
counterweight to the presumption that more regulation is always good.
The goal would be to ensure a more balanced trial, with advocates on
both sides of the issue. (The Catholic Church pioneered in this type of
reform when it created both an Advocate of God and a Devil’s Advocate
in its canonization process. One office was charged with advancing the
case for sainthood, the other for shooting it down.)
possible institutional reform would be to mandate
Post-Regulatory-Approval Audits for products when they are finally
approved. The goal would be to assess the losses (both economic and to
human health) associated with their delayed introduction. Thus, when
the Food and Drug Administration announces a new drug, celebrating how
many lives it will save in the future, such an audit would point out
how many lives could have been saved had the FDA acted even sooner.
such reforms are to have any chance of success, some support or at
least acquiescence by egalitarians will probably be necessary. What
would motivate this group to rethink its opposition to choice and
technology? Possibly the distributional consequences of anti-technology
and anti-growth policies could persuade them. Little effort has been
spent to show the effect of modern risk management policies on the poor
and on the Third World, yet they may be significant. To choose just one
example, if bans on pesticides make fruits and vegetables more
expensive, the poor are hurt more than the well-off.
Toward Private Risk Management
reforming the political bureaucracy is rarely successful. Thus, we
should begin now to relegitimize private risk management.
task of government is not to ensure our safety—but to ensure our
rights. We may elect to hang-glide, to hunt, to smoke, to explore
underwater caves, to ski, to take non-approved pharmaceutical products,
and we should be free to do so. There are risks entailed by such
choices, but people should be free to make those choices and bear the
responsibility for them. There can be no values, no clarity about
justice in a world where others decide what is good for us.
should be free to voluntarily expose themselves to increased
environmental risks if they believe that there are offsetting benefits.
For example, some people may oppose the siting of a new incinerator in
their backyard, while others may see it as a source of wealth and
opportunity. Different people with different needs will judge such
situations differently, examining the risks and the benefits that lie
on each side of the equation. Furthermore, in accepting risks, people
should be free to use private means of managing their risks. A role for
policy is to make sure that private insurance is not destroyed by
government, to restore and strengthen the traditional right of private
contract, and to protect private ownership.
Wildavsky’s work points out the need to expand the arguments in favor
of private risk management and to elucidate the reforms that can enable
us to achieve it. As former EPA Administrator
William Ruckelshaus has noted, echoing Ben Franklin, a frightened
population is often all too willing to sacrifice its freedom for the
promise of security. Many in America have understood that fact and are
using it to erode our freedom.
In sum, fear is rational;
today’s system of political risk management is not. Our challenge is to
make that fact evident to the citizenry. 
1. This article
seeks to synthesize the work of Aaron Wildavsky on risk and to suggest
the policy implications of his work. Wildavsky was the world’s expert
and his untimely death in September 1993 left many unanswered
questions. I venture this essay in the hope that others will take up
2. Of course, the sociobiological case for heroism (the altruistic gene argument) does suggest that this remark be qualified.
See Aaron Wildavsky, Searching for Safety (New Brunswick, N.J.:
Transaction Books, 1988); Mary Douglas and Wildavsky, Risk and Culture:
An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); and Wildavsky, The
Rise of Radical Egalitarianism (Washington: American University Press,
4. See, for example, Daniel Mitchell, “The Deadly
Impact of Federal Regulations,” Journal of Regulation and Social Costs,
June 1992; and, Wildavsky, Searching for Safety.
5. For a
more detailed discussion of this point, see “Who Wants What and Why? A
Cultural Theory” and “Theories of Risk Perception” in Wildavsky, The
Rise of Radical Egalitarianism.
6. See Michael Gough, “How Much Cancer Can EPA Prevent?” Risk Analysis, Vol. 10, no. 1, 1990.
Ideas do have consequences—especially among the intellectual class.
Consider, for example, the shift of opinion at The New York Times on
the value of minimum wage legislation. Over time, the editorial staff
became convinced that such laws harm, rather than help, the poor. See
The New York Times, “The Right Minimum Wage: $0.00,” January 14, 1987.
8. These points are elaborated in my chapter, “Environmental Policy at
the Crossroads,” in Environmental Politics: Public Costs, Private
Rewards, Michael Greve and Fred Smith, eds. (New York: Praeger, 1992).