Safe, Secure…and Stagnant


The No-Risk Society, by Yair Aharoni, Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House, 1981, 228 pp., $25.00/$12.95.

Webster's Third International Dictionary gives two synonyms for risk. The first is danger and the second is venture. It is no accident that the danger material is almost three times longer than the venture part, for this reflects our current social perspective.

Risk taking is encouraged and approved of in vigorous, growing societies. When Horace Greeley advised, "Go West, young man," he didn't add anything about pensions or guarantees—or about Arrowcare in case of Indian attack. However, in a stagnant or declining culture, the risk taker is something else again. Not only is he considered a danger to himself (keep off those cliffs, sonny) but he's a menace to public order and stability as well.

The big difference, of course, is that in the livelier society, the risk taker is focusing on the possibility of success. In the other, the probability of failure is the overriding concern. It is with such questions in mind that Yair Aharoni, who teaches business policy at Tel Aviv University, has written The No-Risk Society.

It is a book of jumbled values. Aharoni is a long way from being an uncompromising advocate of the free market: "By now," he writes, "we all recognize that perfect competition cannot exist in practice and a capitalist economy must be a mixed one." However, this doesn't mean he sees safety and predictability as the only virtues or that he wants to turn the marketplace into a well-padded cell. "Governmental involvement creates dependency and dependent people are not free.…Dependency creates a dynamic demand for more government intervention; if the public pays the bills, the government feels entitled to tell the individual how to behave.…" Actually, the whole book provides a detailed look at the tension between the desire for security versus the danger of stagnation. And it makes for very interesting reading.

For one thing, Professor Aharoni writes very well. He has the happy knack of putting a lot of theory into a few words. He writes that "the more government protects the individual against risks, the more it feels entitled to restrict individual choice. Societal assumption of risk means not only the coverage of benefits but also concern to reduce the size of payments through added safety. An individual who suffers injury through neglecting the use of a safety device should not be allowed to receive indemnity, or his insurance costs should be increased. But if that individual is eligible for health or disability insurance, many would claim that he still should be compelled to be cautious, since it is society that covers the cost.…In this way, expanded social insurance reduces freedom. It also reduces the incentive to be cautious."

There are basically two different types who take risks: those for whom risks are an unpleasant, but necessary, means to an end and those who enjoy riskiness for its own sake. In 1898, for example, almost all the Klondike gold hunters loathed the extremely unpleasant and dangerous overland trip to the mining country of the Yukon (given their druthers, they would have preferred a comfortable train to climbing the Chilkoot Pass any day). At the same time, however, sportsmen in Europe were taking trains to the Alps specifically to risk their lives climbing far more dangerous mountains. Except for first ascents, the summits were not really their goal. Their purpose was the rewarding risk involved in getting to the top.

Either way, back then, those who wanted no part of such things just sat back and let the crazies risk their fool necks. Not so today. As Aharoni shows again and again, we have progressed to the point where there is no end to volunteer and professional eagerness to protect us from ourselves. The anti-growth neo-Luddite movement is intimately connected with the no-risk mindset.

The No-Risk Society is a thorough, well-documented study. Aharoni presents the problem well enough but is short on solutions. "To live in an interdependent world," he writes in the last sentence of the book, "a moderate balance must be struck between private rights and social obligations, between individual freedom and societal restraint." It will have to be another book that builds on Aharoni's work with an emphasis on individual freedom.

Jack Kirwan is assistant editor of The Energy Journal.