Our Dangerous Illusions About Risk

The most formidable risk we are facing isn't the coronavirus.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

The coronavirus pandemic and the draconian lock-down responses to it have given us an object lesson in just how irrationally we evaluate and compare risk. For all our pretenses that “experts” have enough reliable knowledge to mitigate risk based on facts, we still make policy decisions based on fear, self-interest, or ideology. Even before the current medical crisis, our distorted and excessive aversion to risk has led to policies rife with moral hazard that create new and more dangerous consequences.

There’s no doubt that the current shut-down of the economy and public spaces is a consequence of bad risk assessment. These policies were based on lethality models that lacked sufficient data such as the rate of infection, and that projected numbers of dead later reduced significantly. Stoked by panic and incomplete models, radical self-quarantining was mandated even for the healthy young, and open-air activity proscribed even though a viral load necessary to sicken us requires enclosed, crowded spaces and prolonged exposure to a carrier.

Nor is there any certainty that these policies contributed to flattening out the rate of known infected and dying. Germany to date has had one of Europe’s lowest mortality rates, which many attribute to its early and severe lockdown. But recently the reproduction rate of the virus, the number of people one carrier will infect, has been rising after restrictions were lessened. As the Wall Street Journal  reports, “The upward drift in the reproduction rate now suggests that those measures may not have stopped the disease in its tracks so much as delayed the inevitable—and at enormous cost.” 

Or take New York and Florida, which have roughly the same number of people, 19.4 million for NY, and 21.4 million for Florida, and large populations of the more vulnerable elderly. Florida implemented its shut-down two weeks after NY, and its restrictions were much less onerous. Yet New York has had 16,000 deaths as of April 24, while Florida has suffered just under 900 as of April 21. Something more than mitigation by imposing draconian stay-at-home policies accounts for this disparity, and belies the assertions of the policy’s efficacy made by some governors and epidemiologists.

Yet despite those gaps in data, a policy has been implemented that has so far cost an estimated $7 trillion dollars, lowered GDP by nearly 5%, thrown 30 million out of work, crashed the oil market, and dropped the Dow Jones by over 10,000 points, though half of that loss has been restored as of now. And don’t forget the future costs of borrowing money to provide the funds for mitigating this economic disaster. So far about $4 trillion has been borrowed, bringing the debt-to-GDP ratio to 100%,  a dangerous level considering our already seriously under-funded entitlements crisis and growing yearly budget deficits, along with the inevitability of current low interest rates increasing.

Nor is it just about dollars and cents. Deeming some medical procedures “non-essential” has not only beggared and shuttered hospitals, but put people at risk for sickness, disability, or death later on. The malign effects this economic crisis and the isolation caused by self-quarantining may damage some people’s physical and psychic well-being for years to come. Already suicide-prevention hotline calls have increased nearly 900%, and we can expect similar increases in drug addiction, alcohol abuse, depression, and domestic violence––as well as a jump in deaths that could likely in time match the toll of the coronavirus.

We are witnessing a classic case of responding to panic and hysteria rather than calculating and comparing risks rationally. The one-size-fits all approach of the shut-down also ignored the huge differences between risks and conditions in New York City, where half of the U.S. deaths have occurred, and those in Montana or inland California. Subjecting the working young and the healthy to the same mitigation protocols necessary for the old and sick has needlessly burdened the former on behalf of the latter. Never before during an epidemic have the healthy been quarantined.

Our inability to evaluate risks and calculate comparative risks, however, long predates the current crisis. This is partly the consequence of a greater volume of scientific research along with a 24/7 news industry hungry for content, the more lurid and frightening the better. Remember the 1989 Alar scare? Research that posited a cancer-risk from apples sprayed with Alar to regulate growth was hyped by 60 Minutes­­­­­­–– which broadcast an illustration of a skull and crossbones superimposed on an apple–– and helped to set off hysteria about eating apples, severely damaging the industry. Only after the damage was done did people learn that the risk was negligible.

More consequential was the hysteria of the late Eighties and early Nineties over children being kidnapped by strangers. For months milk cartons displayed the pictures and details of a kidnapped child. Some speculated they were being used in Satanic rituals. “Satanic Panic” swept the nation, and numerous news shows acted as an accelerant for the hysteria. Daycare centers became a focus of this paranoia, and several people were unjustly convicted for allegedly using their young charges in Satanic rituals. A Texas couple spent 21 years in prison before being exonerated. In reality, the chances of a child being kidnapped by a stranger for any purpose are extremely small–– 0.0000000001417% of children were kidnapped by a stranger in 2011.

In part, this tendency to overreact to incomplete research or urban legends reflects human nature. We all have a survival instinct that rational thought can’t always restrain. We’re hardwired to perceive threats and take action to avoid them. What’s strange is that people in the developed nations today live remarkably free from the many serious risks that people even 100 years ago faced. The coronavirus will likely turn out to be a particularly nasty flu, especially for the elderly, while sparing children and the young. But it can’t compare with the infectious diseases our ancestors endured: plague, smallpox, typhus, cholera, yellow fever, dysentery, diphtheria, polio, salmonella, viral hepatitis, and tuberculosis, to name a few. Half the dead in the Civil War died of infection, not the enemy’s weapons. Childhood diseases like measles, whooping cough, and mumps in part account for the low life expectancy rates that didn’t start improving until 1900. 

Nor did our forebearers have the treatments and safe pain relievers we take for granted, and many were already weakened by chronic malnourishment and intestinal parasites. They suffered and died miserably, sometimes in filthy conditions and subjected to barbaric medical procedures like blood-letting, which likely killed George Washington. British poet John Keats died of tuberculosis at the age of 25 after literally coughing up his lungs and suffocating on his own blood.

The novelist Fanny Burney left a harrowing account of her mastectomy in 1811, which she underwent with only a “wine cordial” as an anesthetic for the twenty minutes of torture: “When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast––cutting through veins––arteries––flesh––nerves––I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision . . . . When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound.” She goes on to describe the horrific experience of feeling the scalpel as it scrapes her breastbone and ribs to make sure no particle of cancer remained.

Yet despite being freed from risks of early death and excruciating pain from infectious diseases and other dangers, we moderns get hysterical over a new flu that will kill people already sick and who are a decade or two older than the age at which most people before us typically died. The reason is obvious: our historically unprecedented wealth and comfort have created expectations for life that our ancestors would have imagined only for gods. We lack their powers of endurance and grim stoicism, their tragic view of existence as pain, suffering, and discomfort that are non-negotiable features of the human condition, not anomalies to be corrected and eliminated.

And rather than being grateful for our good fortune of abundant food, clean fuels for cooking, indoor plumbing––once luxuries only for the rich––we now take them for granted as bare minimums. Our standards endlessly escalate, as does our resentment of anything causing us discomfort. Having minimized the many risks that once troubled our ancestors, we invent new trivial ones such as hearing ideas or opinions that hurt our feelings or hyper-sensitive egos. No wonder we have created a generation of over-sensitive “snowflakes.”

Moreover, the danger is not just to our characters. We are the beneficiaries of a political system that guarantees our freedom and unalienable rights, a rarity in human history when elites with a monopoly of violence lorded over everybody else. But one cost of that freedom is accountability for one’s choices, a price our therapeutic culture chafes at paying. If we off-load the responsibility for our free choices onto a tutelary government, our freedom begins to erode.

And diminishing our freedom is the greatest risk we run when we demand security from discomfort or fear. Nor does it help that today’s progressives and their media hirelings actively stoke the fear and hysteria as a tool for increasing their power and damaging Donald Trump. Such a power-hungry progressive technocracy that promises to improve life and minimize risk is particularly dangerous to our freedom, as Tocqueville famously predicted two centuries ago, for centralizing and expanding state power at the cost of civil liberties has been the goal of progressives for over a century.

Like today’s progressives who create endless “rights” in order to perfect our existence and gratify our elevated expectations, Tocqueville’s “soft despotism” seeks “to keep [the people] in perpetual childhood”:

It is well content that the people should rejoice, provided that they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, direct their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

In times of crisis such as these, the outsized fear of disease enables these despotic tendencies. As we are seeing today, millions of us have tolerated violations of our natural rights on the part of state, local, and federal governments, at the cost of our freedom and autonomy, and the risk of weakening the political order that guarantees both. For as Tocqueville concludes, “No one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people.”

If we don’t start resisting more widely the petty Mussolinis in state governments and federal bureaucracies, the biggest victim of the coronavirus will be our freedom. That is the most formidable risk we are facing.

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Photo from Pixabay


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