Political Science

In Memoriam: Aaron Wildavsky


Twenty years ago, wading through tome after soporific tome on public administration, I stumbled upon a book with an enticing, if unwieldy, title: Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland, or, Why It's Amazing that Federal Programs Work at All (1973). Inside, instead of sterile program descriptions and organization charts, I found, interspersed with Rube Goldberg cartoons, an account of human action and the pursuit of power.

This was my first encounter with Aaron Wildavsky. A political scientist with pep and perception, he became something of a hero to me. When I finally met him 15 years after first reading Implementation, he was everything I'd imagined: feisty, provocative, and warm-hearted.

On September 4, Aaron Wildavsky died at the age of 63. He had taught since 1963 at the University of California, Berkeley. A prolific thinker and writer, he left behind a legacy of 37 books on budgeting, presidential elections, and, most recently, issues of risk and regulation.

The title of Wildavsky's last book, But Is It True?, to be published posthumously, captures the flavor of his approach. He made a habit of questioning common wisdom and turning concepts inside out.

In what is likely a little-noticed foreword to Rights and Regulation, edited by Tibor Machan and M. Bruce Johnson (1983), Wildavsky questioned whether outlawing danger really makes us safer. Is risk reduced "by attempting to deter danger before it occurs"—the regulatory approach? Or are we better off "managing risk after it manifests itself"? In that brief essay, he set the stage for the next decade of his work.

"Almost all books on risk treat it as a bad thing to be avoided or diminished," he reflected in his 1988 book, Searching for Safety. Wildavsky took a different tack. He explored the idea that risk is a mixed phenomenon from which both benefits and harms emerge. "Under the right (or wrong) conditions," he wrote, "everything we need for life can also maim or kill: water can drown, food can poison, air can choke."

From this kernel of an idea, Wildavsky developed a powerful critique of regulatory policy. He emphasized the concept of "opportunity costs"—that piling on dollars to eliminate a perhaps remote risk means fewer dollars are available to respond to unexpected dangers. Regulation, he suggested, undermines resilience, our ability to "bounce back." Markets, he argued, by passing on "knowledge, diversity, wealth," enable us to respond resiliently to change.

Through all his writings, Wildavsky retained a knack for putting complex ideas into simple, even catchy phrases—like "richer is safer" or "wealthier is healthier " He was a man of immense scholarship, yet he was a down-to-earth communicator.

-Lynn Scarlett