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Living with Risk

It is a commonplace to say that America has become polarized politically. This observation is certainly confirmed by the current divide over pandemic lockdowns. Half the country appears to believe that ending the lockdowns will result in millions of deaths from disease. The other half believes that keeping the lockdowns in place will result in millions of deaths from starvation. The fact that these two horsemen of the apocalypse are jousting in our political arena illustrates at least three different dynamics in play. One is about economics, one about authority, and one about how our political views are shaped by differing perceptions of risk. Understanding this last element may help us most in understanding our way out of the mess.

The current debate over reopening seems, on the face of it, to be about competing approaches to economics. The “lockdown lobby” seems to regard any price paid to protect a human life from the virus as worthwhile; the reopeners regard the price of lockdown as too high, bringing with it costs of its own.

In this respect, the debate can be seen as reflecting a long-established divide between those who focus on the economic effects of one problem and try to solve it, and those who recognize that solutions often bring problems of their own. This is classic Bastiat—the debate between those who focus on the “seen” and those who are worried about the “unseen.”

Beneath this debate, however, there is another one simmering, one that aligns well with the economic argument. This is a debate about authority and expertise. Those who say “listen to the experts” tend to defer to the pronouncements of scientists without debate, and favor lockdowns on those grounds. Skeptics, on the other hand, pick apart the scientists’ arguments (sometimes without understanding them fully) and come to their own judgments. This explains the close correlation between global warming skeptics and lockdown skeptics.

A third, broader conflict may underlie both of these. America’s politics is shaped by the values Americans hold. These values, cultural researchers have found, can be placed in four value groups. Each of them is distinguished by a different concern about risk.

First is the group known as fatalists. Their attitude to risk is quite simple: Things will happen to them irrespective of what they do. Surviving is merely a matter of luck. As a result, they rarely engage in the political debates swirling around policy choices.

Second are the egalitarians. Their concern is that risk must be a matter of fairness. The central aim of politics should be to ensure fairness and to eliminate risk for those most exposed to it. No one should escape risk because of privilege.

Third are what the theorists call hierarchists. This group sees stability and order as most important, and believes risk is worst when it upsets the established order. Politics is a tool to preserve this establishment, or at least “the way we do things around here.”

Finally, there are the libertarians. They regard risks to freedom as the worst problem. To them, politics is about creating institutions to preserve freedom.

When these values clash, we see political polarization at its worst. When they align, we see consensus and reform. Today, when consensus is probably most needed, they are clashing hard.

Part of finding a safer approach to reopening is trial and error. In that respect, the American or German system of federalism is better suited than the centralization of a France or England.

We see these values clash over environmental risk regularly. Egalitarians believe commercial activity exacerbates environmental risk that hurts the poor, so they want commercial activity constrained and regulated. To libertarians and the hierarchists, those restrictions are the actual risks, threatening freedom and the way we have always done things (although some hierarchists regard environmental risk as threatening God’s creation).

The current clash over lockdowns is the same argument recast. Egalitarians think an end to the lockdowns would hurt the vulnerable. Libertarians view the lockdowns as threatening freedom—and even contact tracing as threatening civil liberties. Hierarchists particularly oppose restrictions on religious gatherings.

And the guy who walks straight into a store, ignoring lines, to get booze and cigarettes? Almost certainly a fatalist.

In thinking through this, we need to remember that risks are often relative. If we focus exclusively on the risks we are most concerned about, we can miss the other risks that obtain should our demands be met. It requires a degree of humility about the importance of our values to recognize this.

The cultural theorist Aaron Wildavsky would talk about the jogger’s dilemma: Jogging is a good way of getting fitter and thereby reducing health risks, but more than a few joggers drop dead owing to the extra exertion. Each group in this crisis faces its own version. Keep locked down to protect the vulnerable but risk the vulnerable falling prey to despair; open up but see liberty further eroded after a second wave; go to church and then find the entire congregation infected. There is no safe course, free from risks. We must instead find a “safer” course than the one each group currently favors.

Part of finding this safer approach is—and always has been—trial and error. In that respect, the American or German system of federalism is better suited than, say, the centralization of a France or England, particularly when differences in population density are taken into account. We can see what happens when Georgia reopens, while New York stays locked down. Lockdown supporters are horrified by this. This framework of risk tells us why: they view it as unfair to the vulnerable in the “experimental” states.

Another thing the framework tells us is that we cannot expect perfect safety. As my mentor Fred Smith put it, “Once a society demands unattainable levels of safety—a risk-free world—public policy becomes divorced from reality.” If we are to find a safer world, we have to accept a level of risk we may be uncomfortable with, whether it be a risk to fairness, to freedom, or the established order.

Thus, a safer world might entail reopening the states at different speeds, changes to how we go about our lives and organize our religious gatherings, frequent testing—and yes, wearing face masks.

We are probably not going to agree about economics or expertise any time soon. Yet unless we are willing to understand why our fellow Americans differ in our perceptions of risk, we are not going to find the safer route out of our predicament.

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