TCS Daily


Risk vs. Liberty

By John Luik - June 27, 2006 12:00 AM

The way the UK government looks at risk policy has been shaken up by a new report published recently by the Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs. Though the report's dry title and the abstractions of risk policy might push its findings off the front page, there are few areas of government that impinge so consistently, directly, and often unfortunately on the lives of its citizens.

The report -- Government Policy on the Management of Risk -- grew out of a speech last year by Prime Minister Tony Blair in which he worried both that Britain was becoming a risk-averse society and that this trend was having unfortunate consequences on public policy. While the Lords' report could find no evidence that there was a move toward risk-averse society, it nevertheless found significant problems with the way in which the government thought about and managed risk. And while the report focuses on risk in the UK, its implications about risk and public policy extend to any democratic government.

To begin with, the report notes that government risk policy has "given insufficient weight to available evidence and placed too great a reliance on unsubstantiated reports that often have their origin in the media." This is hardly a minor matter since two of the most important aspects of risk management -- detecting and evaluating risk -- depend on accurate and objective scientific data. If the government proceeds without such evidence, or, worse, relies upon or creates evidence that it knows to be dubious, the risk management process is corrupted from the outset and the public is profoundly misled. Rather than risk policy being driven by science, science instead is "harnessed" to serve the ideological objectives of those managing risk. In effect, risk becomes a cover for far-reaching value decisions that are passed off as scientifically mandated.

A primary instance of this, as the report notes, has been the management of the "risk" of public smoking. Here the evidence is clear not only that the government acted against the best available scientific evidence which showed an insignificant risk (as the report notes the "decision to ban smoking in public places may represent a disproportionate response to a relatively minor health concern"), that alternatives to smoking bans were not given proper attention, and that it acted more with a mind to inaccurate media reports and pressure from special interests groups whose purposes were driven more by making it difficult for smokers to smoke than by protecting the health of nonsmokers.

This tendency to allow risk policy to be driven by a combination of bad science, media frenzy and special interests is unfortunately not confined to smoking policy. For instance, the recent Commons Health Committee report on Obesity -- which provides the justification for the plethora of supposed fat-fighting policies proposed by the Government -- began by reciting the story of a consultant at Royal London Hospital who had "witnessed a child of three" who weighed 40 kilos dying from heart failure brought on by her obesity. The story made instant headlines -- "Three-year old dies from obesity -- but was quickly shown to be untrue. And one could also argue that much of the government's current obsession with the alleged risks of obesity is based not only on inaccurate reports about the numbers of obese people, but on patently false claims such as overweight and obese people live shorter lives than those of "normal" weight and scientifically unproven claims that curtailing food advertising or providing nutritional information will change the way in which people eat. In effect, like public smoking, much of the debate about the risks of obesity is founded on less than robust science.

But risk policies driven by bad science, media frenzy and special interest pleading are not the only problems the report identifies. There is also the problem that the government fails to appreciate the way in which its risk policies frequently erode personal freedoms and civil liberties. This occurs in a number of ways.

For instance, many risk nannies reject the core principle of a free society that individuals should, to the greatest extent possible, be left free to make their own decisions about how to act and to live their lives. Instead, they see risk as a convenient way to engage in social engineering. Then again, the risk assessment process can manipulate the perception of risk by providing false estimates and assessments, by effectively using bad science such that important liberties are overturned on the basis of a nonexistent of minimal risk to the health or safety of others.

Finally, the risk process has no stage in which the trade-offs between liberty and regulation are specifically and critically examined, either on a case by case basis, or, as the report notes, in aggregate. The result is that the default position for government policy is that regulation to control risk should almost always trump liberty- a position that is fundamentally at odds with a free society. This is particularly evident in the debate about passive smoking, where the government appeared to refuse to even consider that restricting public smoking might involve a liberty-limiting issue. The inevitable result of such a failure to force a debate between risk and liberty is that risk-reduction, as opposed to enhancing personal liberty, will inevitably become the defining characteristic of British public policy.

The third major flaw in the government's management of risk that the report finds lies in the use of the Precautionary Principle. The report notes that not only is the principle ill-defined and ambiguous, but it "can induce an excessively cautious attitude to risk", and for these reasons it should be either more carefully defined or abandoned. Redefinition, however, is not possible, making abandonment the only option. This is because the principle is both profoundly anti-scientific and hence anti-risk and self-contradictory.

It is anti-scientific because the logic of scientific knowledge is always contingent: it tells us what the future might be like based on the observations of the past, but it cannot guarantee that the future as precaution demands. Risk assessment is about making the most intelligent choice possible in the midst of the uncertainty. No responsible scientists can guarantee that a product or process will never harm humans or the environment -- as the precautionary principle requires -- for such predictions lie outside the compass of science. In effect the precautionary principle asks of science and of risk policy what neither can provide: a god-like omniscience.

Moreover, it is self-contradictory because it cannot be applied to itself. For instance, is it clear that using the precautionary principle as the basis of risk regulation will not harm either humans or the environment? Obviously not, since preventing change and innovation on the basis of an unknown future can be profoundly risky.

Taken together these risk management problems suggest that a fundamental rethink of the way in which government deals with risk is needed. This is because the public is not as concerned about risks as the government assumes, many "risks" are simply the creation of special interest groups and a scientifically-challenged media, the scientific basis for many risks is highly suspect, the foundational principle of risk management is the ill-defined, incoherent and risk-averse precautionary principle, and most importantly, avoiding risk threatens to displace personal freedom as the core value of contemporary society.

The author is writing a book about health policy.

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3 Comments

Society vs. Individual
The balancing of risk vs. liberty also has a direct impact on the degree of self-determination individuals can have within a society. Do individuals have an obligation towards the society in terms of how they live their life?

Risk Management should be taught in schools
Thank you for writing that article. There are huge issues with risk management on the part of authorities and the end result always seems to be that we all lose out

regards
maurizio

Risk vs. Liberty
It is about time that a EU Member State government has acknowledged what is most apparent - that the precautionary principle is an unrealistic and unworkable political rather than scientific concept that will only destroy modern risk analysis, and along with it, free enterprise, private property and the rule of law.

The ITSSD has delved deeply into the precautionary principle and evaluated how the EU Commission has endeavored to articulate it as a key regional tenet of sustainable development policy. Unfortunately, it doesn't wish to limit the PP's impact to the European region. Rather, they are in the process of exporting it throughout the world.

Please visit the www.itssd.org website for more information, especially a very detailed recent analysis of how Europe's exportation of the precautionary principle to the US threatens American free enterprise.

See: http://www.itssd.org/white_papers.htm

The ITSSD would be pleased to elaborate on its findings, and possible strategies to oppose its dissemination and use, should anyone be interested.

Sincerely,

Lawrence A. Kogan, Esq.

CEO
Institute for Trade, Standards and Sustainable Development

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