Safety First is a Bad Ideology

July 5, 2020

When you walk out of your house, or enter the public street, you are on shared ground, a community space. During the pandemic of 2020, community spaces that are private venues, like Disney, have closed down just as often as community spaces that are public venues, like schools and playgrounds.

Public and private distinctions do not make a difference. Risk is the key factor to understanding why common spaces are closed and likely to remain so, at least in the way we were used to. In what is called the asymmetric loss function, a decision maker’s cost of a mistake in one direction is many times greater than the cost of error in the other direction.

Individuals with asymmetric loss functions are extremely risk averse when it comes to potential losses. Individuals often employ asymmetric loss functions in everyday life. For most people being 30 minutes early for a flight, for example, is much less costly than being 30 minutes late.

But, because people are different, individuals decide for themselves how late they can arrive and risk missing a flight. Things get trickier when decisions regarding risk tolerance are made for common spaces and groups, because one size doesn’t always fit all. Weighing downside risks too heavily can be socially costly, because some valuable private activities are prohibited.

Historically and across cultures, individual risk-taking is associated with growth and prosperity while minimizing risk and emphasizing potential social losses is not. In the last several decades, public tolerance of risk has shifted towards lower socially acceptable levels of risk-taking and in the long run, these changes may leave us all worse off.

In her Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, Deirdre McCloskey details how attitudes toward risk-taking transformed at about the same time as the birth of capitalism. It was the ability of individuals to take risks and still recover from failure that paved the way for radical experiments. Prior to this, to take a risk and fail was to be labeled a prodigal, if one was thought to have wasted the money, or a projector, if one’s idea failed.

Some of this dishonor would extend to the guilty party’s family as well. As a whole, society’s ethical norms were to avoid risk and as a result, many good ideas which were technically possible stayed as abstract thoughts and not as steps on the road of progress. For McCloskey, this, more than any other explanation, explains the when and how of the birth of the great divergence since all other factors that have been attributed occurred elsewhere in various combinations.

Risk, therefore, can be expressed as an attitude about the commons more than anything else. If the rules of society protect those who are willing to take risks, this increases risk not only to the risk-takers but also has various effects on others around them regardless of their risk tolerance. There is no escape; the status of risk legally and socially impacts everyone. The risk-taker arrived in English via the French word, entrepreneur, describing the willingness to undertake risk. Jeremy Bentham, in a letter to Adam Smith, colorfully compares risk-taking in business to Marcus Curtius, a Roman martyr described in Livy’s history. Bentham was arguing against Smith’s defense of an interest rate cap, suggesting it would stifle innovation and advantage incumbents.

We find ourselves at the other end of a collective conversation on risk-taking today. The tolerance of any level of risk is often cast often as a threat. We have justified unprecedented economic losses based on very uncertain risks. Merely mentioning a potential downside seems to carry more weight nowadays than it did in the past.

Part of this might be due to years of public health rhetoric about externalities; e.g. second-hand smoke, the collective costs associated with obesity, and the health costs of pollution.

In 2020, the implicit calculation of risk relating to the pandemic would have to be very large to justify the trillions of dollars in terms of economic losses that have been incurred so far, with a cumulative total economic cost that is even higher. We also must account for the human costs of worldwide economic contraction, measured in terms of starvation deaths alone.

During the current pandemic, two astronauts boarded a previously unmanned rocket and rode it into near earth orbit to meet up with the International Space Station. As a percentage of people injured while attempting this feat, astronauts bear a much larger risk than ocean bathers. Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken took this risk which is understood as heroic by a society that is anxious for the technological progress that comes from making space accessible to human exploration.

In an everyday sort of example, on June 2nd, a 17 year old named Paige Winter was attacked by a shark standing in waist deep water on the coast of North Carolina. A shark attack is precisely the sort of thing we remind people of when they visit beaches, but most of us consider the activity of standing in five-foot-deep water a reasonable risk. This activity is socially understood, currently, as a risk worth taking. The beaches remain open for this sort of activity.

Related specifically to the current pandemic, what message are venture capitalists getting about local businesses; smaller retail shops, restaurants, and venues? The shift from evaluating risk as an individual to collective risk evaluation may ultimately empower local public health officials to return to 2020 measures any time seasonal flu peaks.

In all of these examples, we understand the role that perceptions play in evaluating risk. The recent willingness to elevate risk as a primary category cannot be understood without a growing concern over liability. The asymmetric loss is not only with respect to individual decisions, but it is a mental habit that administrators also take.

From your school’s principal to your city’s mayor, to your governor or president. The focus they have is on the potential loss. Not only in terms of legal liability, but also in terms of social response. Every governor knows that they will get very little credit for a situation that is unremarkably safe, but they will get all the credit for rising numbers of deaths and hospitalizations. The calculation almost has to be toward safety.

What we see, in addition to this, is that some safety measures people are taking do not actually move the needle on risk, but probably increase the risks we expose ourselves as well as others to. Wearing gloves to the grocery store is one discredited example of misguided safety measures.

The logic of glove wearing requires changing gloves each time you touch a contaminant, and if you cannot do this, then you are far better off washing your hands and using hand sanitizer between washes.

No one knows, of course, when they have touched a contaminated surface and so gloves give a false sense of security and may increase cross contamination. In this example as in many others, compliance alone doesn’t ensure best practices.

The use of ritualistic safety measures is as effective as a batsman making the sign of the cross on their bat as they step up to the plate. It does confer an important advantage, however, to the decision maker. The longer the list of safety measures a decision maker can point to when inevitably something undesirable happens, the better exonerated they are from popular sentiment.

In the court of public opinion, the failure to enact more extreme safety protocols is seen as contributory negligence. The concept of due care, which does not hold an individual liable as long as they can show that they have taken due care has almost entirely disappeared. As a result, our leaders are focusing on compliance with popular standards rather than experimenting to find the right standard of safety.

In this environment it becomes excruciatingly difficult to argue for what is lost on the other side of the equation of risk. The implied trade-offs are of no consequence when compared to safety. We lose scientific advancement if the benefits of experimentation, even when it is risky, could not sometimes outweigh the costs—including the low but positive risk of losing astronaut lives. If all but the lowest risks are considered too large to take, then progress is essentially halted.

In a time where the socially acceptable level of risk-taking is up for debate, we are moving toward too little risk tolerance. The attitude of low risk tolerance was the norm among aristocratic families, monarchies, and totalitarian regimes throughout history. All of these structures were essentially conservative in the worst sense of the word: they could not allow for change because it would threaten the power structure.

With the birth of capitalism, we tolerated social mobility: both downward and more heroically, upward. The churning of the social space is consistent with a greater toleration of risk. Maybe we haven’t convinced you with regard to public health issues during a pandemic, but at least consider the weight placed on safety the next time you use a satellite connected device, visit a beach, or take an antibiotic.

*AIER is a 501(c)(3) Nonprofit registered in the US under EIN:04-2121305