Monday, March 03, 2008

America, Europe, Russia - and the management of danger

From an article at

ANYBODY who dabbles in transatlantic affairs has come across one giant stereotype: Americans admire risk-takers, whereas Europeans (at least in the rich, stable parts of the continent) are instinctively risk-averse, expecting the state to shield them from all sorts of dangers, including their own folly. Move a bit farther east to the ex-communist world, especially Russia, and you enter a place where things seem to have gone from one extreme to another: from an all-demanding, all-protective state to a free-for-all where life is full of deadly dangers, about which even the prudent can't do very much.

Like most windy generalisations, this transatlantic contrast has a grain of truth...


In any case, by comparison with most other parts of the world, and with any other era of human history, the United States and western Europe are converging in their attitudes to danger. Most kinds of risk have been successfully removed from everyday life. Women hardly ever die in childbirth; miners generally make it back above ground; fishermen usually return to shore; and having a drink of water no longer means dicing with cholera. Of course, some people—bungee-jumpers and rock-climbers—take risks freely; but the unwanted perils that once haunted people's lives are mostly a thing of the past.

What Americans and Europeans alike are now attempting to do is squeeze out the last few drops of risk, with results that are often counter-productive, because risk is simply transferred from one place to another. That is true in an obvious sense when, for example, companies dump toxic waste or use risky technologies in countries whose regulation is relatively lax. But there are also more subtle ways in which efforts to eliminate risk can simply move the danger along. Some good instances come from behaviour on the roads, where people may act more recklessly as safety measures (their own and other people's) make them bolder.

Read the rest (especially the last paragraph, please)

hat tip: Frank Wilson

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