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The folly of eliminating risk from life

Over at the National Review’s Corner blog, Charles C. W. Cooke has this smart observation to make about the extent governments claim they will go to eliminate risk:

No free society worth its salt operates anywhere close to the principle that a law that could save “one life” is automatically worth passing, or that “actions” that result in “only saving one life” are axiomatically “worth taking.” Holding all school classes in lead-lined, bulletproof underground panic rooms would probably save “one life” over the next few years, but that doesn’t mean we should do it; banning Ibuprofen would probably save “one life” in the next few years, but that doesn’t mean we should do it; limiting access to trousers and bananas and televisions and wardrobes and swimming pools would almost definitely save “one life” over the course of a given year, but, again, that doesn’t mean that we should do it. And so on and so forth. The question, as ever, is whether the cost is worth it. The “one life” canard is an attempt to bypass that and appeal to emotion. Depressingly enough, it’s relatively effective.

The “one life” idea is especially silly in the context of the gun debate because it can be used both ways equally productively. Almost every day, an American saves his own life — or someone else’s life — with a privately held firearm. Last week, for example, a mother in Georgia used a .38 revolver to protect herself and her children from an intruder. Taking Joe Biden’s line — which he appears to have inherited from the president — one could quite easily construct a case to issue all mothers with revolvers whether they like it or not. Wait, you object to having a gun in the house? You think that arming all of America’s mothers sounds expensive? You’re not sure that’s the best idea anyway. Civil liberties? Yes, yes, but if it saves just one life . . .

Indeed. And as he goes on to say, the UK government in the past – and still – engages in the same sort of behaviour. (Often, this is done in the name of protecting children, playing to the understandable desire of adults to protect youngsters.) Then there is that old friend, The Law of Unintended Consequences. A risk-averse society creates new risks, which of course fall on different shoulders from those presumably being protected by the measures, although often people who are supposed to be protected by bans on X or Y can suffer in other ways.

We cannot create a no-risk society, and even if we could, it would be horrifying. Indeed, the only place where humans exist without risk is in a grave.

12 comments to The folly of eliminating risk from life

  • Paul Marks

    The principles (if one can call them “principles”) that modern regulation is based upon, would have prevented every advance in human history.

  • RogerC

    One wonders if that’s their purpose.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    You misunderstand “life.” In this context, it means the career of a sitting legislator.

  • Ernie G

    Many of the risks we take for granted would have been unacceptable if the current risk adverse regulatory scheme had been in effect years ago. I doubt if we would have aspirin, or insulin, or cars running around carrying enough gasoline to level a city block

  • veryretired

    There is a certain irony in claiming that an increasingly intrusive state is a safeguard against danger to life and limb, given that such a state is the primary danger to human life, limb, and freedom in the world, and always has been.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Which group of people tend to be anti-risk? I suspect the growth of government in modern times (20th century onwards) has a lot to do with the emancipation of a certain class of people who previously did not have the vote.

    Oops, did I upset the apple cart again? Sorry.

    The genie is out – it can never be put back in.

  • Julie near Chicago

    When I was a kid the playground had swings, with actual flat seats that were wide enough to accommodate a fair-sized rump. And you could stand up in the swing and pump standing up. What a thrill!

    My fiancé and I used to stop when we passed a playground while on a walk, and swing in the swings.

    Sometime in the ’60′s, it was realized that those flat seats could clobber children in the cranium, and all the schools and parks replaced them with the flexible rubber strips. Not much good for standing up in, and not very comfortable to sit in either. Goodbye swinging.

    Eventually it was discovered that even the strips hurt if you got clouted by the edge of one; but worse, there was still the possibility that a kid might fall out of the swing.

    I haven’t seen a swing, nor a jungle gym, nor a teeter-totter, nor one of those kid-powered merry-go-rounds in a playground in many, many years.

    Meanwhile, there have been cases where the grandparents have been sued by the parents because the kids have gotten hurt on their parents’ old swings in the grandparents’ back yard.

    When I was a kid, the lucky ones among us had trees, and dads who drilled two holes in a board with rounded edges, threaded a good long sturdy rope through the holes, and tied the ends around a stout branch. Ours must’ve been at least 10′ off the ground. Swinging in it was pure heaven–I could swing for hours (or so it seemed).

    It was guaranteed that you’d fall out of the swing at least once each year, and twice every other year because the rope always broke at some point. Usually didn’t fall very far. Never got more out of it than a skinned knee.

    I sure miss the swings.

  • RogerC

    Risk’s very difficult to actually reduce, but very easy to move around from place to place. You can get a local reduction in risk very easily, but the reduced risk here tends to pop up again as increased risk there.

    A classic example is seat belts, where an increase in safety inside the vehicle is more than cancelled out in most populations by and increase in injuries to pedestrians, cyclists and other less well armoured road users.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Risk-John-Adams/dp/1857280687/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1357894183&sr=1-1

  • PeterT

    The problem is not just risk aversion, but a poor understanding by the populace of relative levels of risk. Hence too much effort goes into anti-terrorism risk management, and perhaps too little into managing more boring risks – for example by putting up a fence around your swimming pool to prevent your toddler falling in.

  • Paul Marks

    That is a very sad story Julie.

  • Midwesterner

    RogerC,

    From the description of that book you linked”

    It postulates that behaviour is governed by the probable costs and benefits of alternative courses of action which are perceived through filters formed from all the previous incidents and associations in the risk-taker’s life.;

    Which is why attempting to isolate children from risk has created adults without awareness of, or even interest in, negative consequences of decisions.

    By the time people finally start calibrating their risk meters, the stakes can be enormous. Lacking understanding and practice, they weigh risk poorly and the consequences of unbalanced risk aversion, not at all.

  • Julie near Chicago

    See Bill Whittle’s 6-minute video “The Deal,” in which he explains how aviation would never have gotten off the ground (so to speak) if men, both pilots and businessmen, had been unwilling to risk; and of his hope that Burt Rutan, Virgin Galactic, and so forth will be able to pick up NASA’s ball that’s dribbled into the gutter.

    He talks a little bit, by the way, about one of my favorite books–Ernest K. Gann’s Fate is the Hunter. And points out that–well, I hope you watch it so you can see for yourselves.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXbdJ3kyVyU