Thursday, October 19, 2006

The No-Risk Society

Our national attitude to risk is becoming defensive and disproportionate; the way we try to manage risk is leading to regulatory overkill. There is an over-reliance on Government to manage all risks, yet it is neither possible nor desirable to control every risk in life. Personal responsibility and trust must be encouraged. Britain must safeguard its sense of adventure, enterprise and competitive edge.

These are the words of the newly-established Better Regulation Commission, a group of UK Government advisors who have just released their first major report, entitled "Risk, Responsibility and Regulation - Whose risk is it anyway?". In it, they assert that "we have all... been complicit in a drive to purge risk from our lives and we have drifted towards a disproportionate attitude to the risks we should expect to take". However, "enough is enough - it is time to turn the tide".

This, to my mind, is to be welcomed. The anecdotal evidence from the UK regarding the increasing refusal to take any risks is overwhelming: from the difficulty in getting schoolteachers to engage in extra-curricular activities, particularly sports, to the intrusion of Health and Safety officials into almost all aspects of social life. A relative of mine, who works in the food industry, was astonished - and delighted - recently when confronted by the Italian tradition of aperitivo for the first time, in which many pubs and restaurants put on a pre-dinner finger buffet for those drinking there; "Health and Safety", he claimed, "would never allow that in the UK". Our loss, certainly. The report contains a number of other, less anecdotal, examples.

Of course, the increasing litigiousness of the general public is both driving and driven by this process. As the report notes (p. 17), "Fear or litigation, terrifying and lurid headlines, single-issue campaigns, lack of trust, lack of information, confused accountability and a 'something must be done' mentality - all swirl around the policy-making process and put impossible pressure on the system - and ministers - for rapid and decisive action". All contribute to the fact that in the UK, much as in the US before it, the word "accidental" is slowly being expelled from the English language, and replaced by the accusation "negligent".

It seems to me, however, that we can go one step further than the report does, and apply its insights to one of the most pressing and important issues of our time: human rights and national security. If our increasingly risk-averse nature has led us to prefer regulation at all and any cost in the relatively petty spheres of everyday life, then how much more this is true of our reaction to the steady erosion of human rights and civil liberties in the face of the threat of terrorism. Indeed, it is this risk-aversion, this demand for security at all costs, that forms the single most important justificatory strategy in governmental rhetoric on, for example, the draconian detention powers now available to police; this was perhaps clearest in Home Secretary John Reid's almost pathetically transparent speech in which he declared (the day before UK police foiled the "biggest anti-UK terrorist plot ever") that the critics of the Government's anti-terrorism policy (including, for example, the ECtHR judges in the Chahal case) simply "didn't get it" - didn't appreciate the seriousness of the threat facing the UK.

Perhaps, however, they did "get it"; perhaps they simply refused the Government's risk assessment - that terrorist attacks must be stamped out, regardless of the very high costs to fundamental principles of our ethics such as the right to liberty. The argument that I want to make here is not the (very plausible) one that such limits are in the end counter-productive, and contribute to making sustained terrorist campaigns more, and not less, likely; rather, it is that, in a spirit of human rights adventurism - for, if you will, the thrill of the ethical - terrorism is a risk that we have to be prepared to run. Such risks are an inevitable attendant of our ethical self-image; and, as recent events have shown, we cannot supress one without seriously eroding the other. Of course, it is, as always, a question of balance, of how much of our ethics we are prepared to trade for our security. My claim would be that, in the UK and perhaps even more spectacularly in the US, we have got this balance seriously wrong.

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