Book Review: Searching For Safety by Aaron Wildavsky
MARCH 01, 1989 by JOHN SEMMENS
Transaction Books, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08903 * 1988 * 253 pages • $32.95 cloth; $16.95 paperback
What is safe? While the purveyors of government safety regulations think they know, the odds are they are wrong. Since all action is designed to deal with the future, and the future is unknown, all action is inherently speculative. Though the advocates of statutory and regulatory approaches to coping with the hazards of an uncertain future believe they are ensuring safety, the reality is that the only thing likely to be ensured is stag nation.
This book is premised on the idea that safety is not a known, utopian condition, but rather a changing relative improvement over a previous more precarious condition. The question of how better to achieve safety is aptly posed by the so-called “jogger’s dilemma.” The dilemma consists of confronting two interrelated facts about the effects of jogging on a person’s health. In general, over the long run, exercise tends to improve physical health and increase longevity. However, the process of strenuous exercise places the body under stress. One’s chances of dying due to stress are, thus, greater during an hour of exercise than an hour of repose.
Should one incur the short-run risk of jogging with its attendant stress in order to obtain the long-run benefit of better health? The most intelligent response to such a question is that it depends. Not every individual faces the same risk-reward ratio. Not every circumstance is well suited to the contemplated exercise (as I write this, it is 110 degrees outside). The variety of contingencies that can affect the decision to take or avoid the short-run risk argue in favor of a flexible, decentralized process for decision-making.
Safety regulation and legislation, though, are the opposite of flexible and decentralized. Government-imposed rules must be stable and standardized. “Flexibility” in the hands of government can too easily degenerate into arbitrary abuse of authority. No matter how hard government tries to decentralize, it will always fall short of matching its rules to the unique circumstances of each individual. Only freedom and the marketplace hold forth the prospect for adequately coping with the changing needs of unique individuals.
The current politicization of safety, by inflicting the force of government on more and more areas of our lives, threatens the safety it purports to be protecting. Banning or severely restricting “dangerous” research and experi ments may prevent the improbable disasters the regulators fear. Unfortunately, progress may also be obstructed. Insisting that expensive safety equipment be mandated to guard against the tiniest hazards has a retarding effect on economic growth. Safety demagogues are quick to assert their superior virtue for placing the saving of even one life ahead of economics.
Professor Wildavsky effectively refutes this fallacy by pointing out that economic growth also saves lives. The improved living conditions made possible by economic growth actually contribute to longer, healthier lives. By way of illustration, he offers an interesting statistic: for a 45-year-old working man, a 15 percent increase in take-home pay has the same statistical impact on his longevity as would the elimination of all workplace hazards. Thus, even if government programs to remove work hazards actually eliminated all risk, it is likely that the net result in most instances still would be negative. Sacrificing economic growth in pursuit of expensive safety rules, therefore, may well cost more lives than are saved.
The progress that has yielded our current, relatively safe mode of living involved the intentional taking of risks. Daring to venture into the unknown is an unavoidable step in developing new and better ways of living. Purposefully accepting risk is a necessary part of attaining greater safety in the long ran.
The interconnectedness of risk and safety invalidates the simplistic strategy of outlawing hazards. If we are to improve rather than atrophy we must move ahead by taking chances. The discovery of safer ways of doing things can be conducted most expeditiously by individuals free to act and to bear responsibility for the consequences. The social mechanism most adept at facilitating the process of rational risk-taking is freedom.
Professor Wildavsky’s book is not always easy reading, but it is full of sound logic and useful illustrations. It will be especially helpful for those free market partisans who, for want of a firm scientific foundation, have conceded safety regulation to government. Not only can we rely upon the market to take care of safety, but if we value life and limb we will insist upon a market approach.
(John Semmens is an economist with the Laissez Faire Institute, a free-market research organization headquartered in Tempe, Arizona.)