The Risks of Risk Avoidance
Peter Meilaender

Two news items, one dealing with domestic politics, the other with foreign affairs, have dominated this last week of 2009, as I write. The first is the Senate’s Christmas Eve passage of its version of a health-care reform bill; the second was the attempted terrorist attack upon Northwest Airlines Flight 253 by the Nigerian Islamist whom Mark Steyn so eloquently dubbed the “Pantybomber.” In different ways, both of these issues illustrate the increasing difficulty of successful governance as we move deeper into the twenty-first century. That difficulty stems from a combination of, on the one hand, the public’s slowly but persistently increasing demand that persons be protected against risks of all sorts with, on the other, an expectation that those risks be minimized by agencies that are in important respects incapable of doing so successfully.

Consider first our attempt to reform the health-care system. That system is bedeviled by two important problems: significant numbers of people without health insurance and rapidly increasing health-care costs. In my view, the second of these is more basic than, and indeed largely responsible for, the first. But of course nobody asks me, and congressional reform efforts have focused primarily on the uninsured. There are no doubt many reasons for this. (For one, it is easier to solve: just pass a law requiring everyone to buy insurance!) Among other things, however, this decision reveals our deep attachment to the very concept of “insurance” as the foundation for a health-care system. Health insurance makes excellent sense for catastrophic care and for large, unexpected expenses. But there is no particular reason why insurance should be the mechanism for funding routine sorts of medical care such as check-ups, blood work, tests, and so on. As David Goldhill argued in his excellent Atlantic Monthly cover story (“How American Health Care Killed My Father,” September 2009), such care is comparable to dental work, for which few of us carry insurance. Our automatic, almost unconscious assumption that access to insurance must be the core of health-care reform reflects a general societal mindset, an aversion to risk and a desire to see those risks assumed by someone else—often, the government.

Reaction to the Pantybomber incident reflects the same urge to minimize risks, which in this case unfortunately assumed farcical dimensions. Within about twenty-four hours of the attack, we were learning that as a new safety precaution—chosen, presumably, because the bomber had readied his explosive surprise while concealed in the airplane’s restroom just before its descent—passengers would no longer be permitted to use the restroom during the last hour of international flights, but would have to remain in their seats. This, of course, is completely absurd, if not an exquisitely refined form of tyranny—surely even government bureaucrats learned in their youth that “when ya gotta go, ya gotta go.” Fortunately, reason has at least partially triumphed, and this rule appears to have been modified, though at the time of this writing it is anyone’s guess what the regulations actually are. (Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano reassures us that they are “designed to be unpredictable.”) Obviously, just as it is easier to force everyone to buy health insurance than to figure out how to restrain costs in our immensely complex health-care system, it is also easier to tell passengers to stay in their seats than it is to hunt down disaffected Islamists. Again, though, the reflex to minimize risk by even the silliest of rules is symptomatic of a broader social instinct.

It is hardly a novel observation that contemporary society is characterized by deep-seated risk aversion. Of interest to me here is the profound problem this poses for governance. For in reality, many of the most pressing contemporary threats are of such complexity that no one actually knows, or could reasonably be expected to know, how to negate them. As a consequence, public aversion to risk dooms governance, understood in terms of national policy-making or legislation, to failure. Certainly this is true in important respects of both health-care and the war on terror, quite apart from one’s general policy preferences. Whether one prefers to force everyone to buy insurance regardless of its affordability, or whether one aims at controlling costs for people whose expectations for health require a veritable fountain of youth, the truth is that our health-care system is so enormous and complex that no one can predict with any certainty the consequences of large-scale reform.

By the same token, whether one prefers to strap airline passengers into their seats or to fire missiles at terrorists hiding among anti-American Muslim populations, there are no sure-fire policies for preventing future terrorist attacks. Other problems either currently or projected to be on the Obama agenda—financial crisis, climate change, immigration—are of similar complexity, and attempts to “fix” them through national legislation are equally likely to produce unintended consequences. Critical problems of the contemporary world exhibit complexity of a scale that exceeds human reason’s capacity adequately to comprehend and manage.

Voters’ expectation that political leaders should solve these complex problems has led to increasing political volatility. George W. Bush’s re-election was supposed to indicate a mandate. Then Democrats thought Obama’s election signaled a lasting re-alignment. Now the GOP hopes that his plunge means the tide is turning their way again. In fact, voters are wishing a plague upon both parties’ houses, because they think that neither can solve their problems. The voters are not entirely wrong, but the fault does not lie simply with the parties.


But perhaps, one might say, it has always been thus. People have always faced problems more complex than they could understand, and human life has always been a race to prevent the current looming danger from becoming the one that finally does us in, a race in which many peoples throughout history have finally fallen. In a sense, this is true—it is always tempting to exaggerate the special, unprecedented character of our own time and place. Still, I suspect that as a sociological phenomenon, the conscious experience of confronting insoluble problems has become qualitatively different under conditions of modern life. Partly we have been the victims of our own success—the greater our scientific and technological prowess, the higher our expectation that we can solve any problem. But more than just rising expectations are at work. For modernity—and here the earlier issue of risk-aversion becomes relevant—has also in important respects increased individuals’ social and political vulnerability.

One of modernity’s important effects has been to dissolve the networks and communities in which people traditionally found support in times of trouble—families, churches, neighborhoods. In large part this is due to increased mobility. At times even our own public policy successes have contributed to this disintegration, as with Social Security, which has loosened the bonds that previously tied generations together. The result has been to leave the individual citizen with a greater feeling of vulnerability. And so as other communities that might protect him against threats and risks diminish, increasingly he looks for security to the one power that still seems able to provide it—the state.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, when the state itself seems overwhelmed by the scale of contemporary problems, citizen frustration and dissatisfaction increases. It is important to note that my point here is not the familiar one about the limits of the nation-state. It is common to argue that issues such as global warming, nuclear proliferation, and globalized trade cannot be effectively addressed by the nation-state and therefore require new modes of transnational or global governance. That is not my suggestion. Indeed, if my argument here is correct, such a move would only exacerbate the problems we face by increasing their complexity exponentially. Figuring out the US health-care system is difficult enough. Attempting to formulate policies or legislation to address problems on a global scale would require a truly godlike perspective. Indeed, nothing more clearly indicates a certain dangerous tendency within modern politics than do reminders—heard most often, though not exclusively, from the environmental movement—of our so-called moral responsibility to “save the planet.” That is a responsibility we should not wish to shoulder. We would not, in any case, be up to it. We have enough trouble saving our own downtowns.

What is needed, rather, is precisely the opposite: decentralization to take advantage of local knowledge, better forms of what Elinor Ostrom, co-winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics, has called “polycentric” models of governance. The insight is familiar enough, having received its classic formulation in Tocqueville’s account of American democracy. Consider our two opening examples again. What is the most effective form of assistance for someone with a sudden and unexpected health need? The support of family, friends, and neighbors. And what prevented the Pantybomber farce from becoming tragedy? A passenger seated a few rows back who subdued him—just as the one partially averted tragedy on 9/11 was the work, not of any government agency, but of citizens on the spot.

These examples may seem too simplistic to suggest any policy solutions. But the urge to find a “policy solution” for problems whose complexity exceeds the grasp of human reason—to think that we can assuage our vulnerability if only we pass the right national legislation, or create the right institutions of global governance—is itself part of the problem. As in a properly functioning market, there is more wisdom dispersed throughout our political and social systems than can be harnessed by a single legislature. Instead of leaders who promise to solve our problems, we need a dose of humility about the process of problem-solving itself. I would wager that many citizens—even if they do not realize it—are ready to support a political party that has the courage not to minimize our risks for us, but instead to create decentralized mechanisms that enable us to minimize them for ourselves, and in the process to breathe new life into American democracy.



Peter Meilaender is Associate Professor of Political Science at Houghton College.

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