The Eclipse of Risk
Al Gore's use of the adjective "risky" to disparage any policy proposal put forward by his opponent has now travelled the entire route from campaign rhetoric, via late-night comic patter and dinner-table jokes, to the trashcan of politico-linguistic trivia, where it rests at peace with "normalcy," "missile gap" and Willie Horton. I understand that Gore still uses the word off-camera; but this only demonstrates — as if any demonstration were needed — that politicians have no sense of the absurd.
I think we all know that the Gore people were on to something with that gambit, though. The contemplative sentry in Iolanthe identified the two great domains in which political emotions dwell: "Every boy and every gal / that's born into the world alive / is either a little Liberal / or else a little Conservative." Underlying this great divide are a number of lesser dichotomies nudging each of us into one territory or the other. There is the preference for authority over autonomy, for example, or for stasis over change, or for the heroic over the domestic, as well as even older, more primitive cuts like rustic/urban and the rooted divisions about religion and race. These are the deep springs that feed our political passions.
And then there is security versus risk. In employing "risky" as a scare-word, Gore speaks to those who cherish their security and fear risk: a powerful appeal, as practically all of us find ourselves in that frame of mind at least some of the time, and large numbers of citizens never leave it.
Investment bankers have a term I rather like: they speak of a client's "appetite for risk." Each of us has indeed an appetite for risk; and this appetite, like the others, varies widely from one person to another. At the extreme you have a person like the late Sir James Goldsmith, who lived on the edge all his life — hanging on to the edge by his fingernails much of the time, in fact. Expelled from his tony English private school for gambling, Goldsmith had made and lost a fortune by age twenty, at which point, penniless, he eloped with the daughter of a Bolivian millionaire. Churchill was another case, living by his wits from one book or newspaper contract to another, serving champagne at dinner even when broke, and losing fortunes at the gaming tables well into his seventies.
Those of us on the political Right feel instinctively that people like this are of our party. The political Left is hostile to risk, and claims — falsely, of course — the power to abolish it. Around 1930 Arthur Koestler attended a conference of socialists in Paris. A speaker — I think it was Malraux — gave a lengthy description of the joyful life that all would enjoy in the socialist paradise. In the midst of this a voice called out from the hall: "What about the little child run down by a tram-car?" Replied the speaker: "In the developed socialist society, there will be no traffic accidents."
This was fantasy; and while some such strain of wishful thinking is always present in left-wing social prescriptions, Koestler's story is not entirely fair to social democrats of the moderate type, who seek to improve us without hoping to perfect us. There has indeed been a great reduction in traffic accidents per vehicle since 1930, and social controls of a type resisted by conservatives — compulsory seat belts for example — can plausibly claim some of the credit. (Though it is an interesting, probably unanswerable, question whether the same results could not have been achieved by relying on self-interest.)
In fact both great political persuasions make appeals to security, though for quite different purposes. The word "security" occurs in two current policy topics: "social security," a creation of the Left, which they jealously guard, and "national security," a favorite of the political Right. Here is the key to the difference in mentality. To the Left, security is a goal, an ending — a corral into which the population must be penned, so that they can be watched over and kept safe from harm. To the Right it is a beginning: a harbor, well-defended but open to the sea, from which we can sally out to take our chances in the storms of the world.
Supposing, of course, that we want to. The great success of the Left in the twentieth century arose from the fact that most of us have not much appetite for risk, except perhaps for a few years in our youth, and that the promise offered by the Left — to reduce the risk in our lives by applying social controls to all around us — has wide appeal. It must also be conceded that the Left often took great risks to advance its cause. You could hardly call Lenin "risk-averse" — or FDR, for that matter.
In the world we live in now, however, those adventures in social engineering are far behind us. The twentieth-century Left succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. John Maynard Keynes was regarded as a bold radical in his time; he none the less believed that no government should be trusted to control more than twenty-five per cent of its nation's wealth. In several of the European social democracies of today the figure exceeds fifty per cent; even in the United States, the great bastion of economic liberty, it is nudging forty. Along with this tremendous expansion of the wealth — and consequently of the power — of the state has come a great cultural revolution, an upending of traditional values, so that the freakish and outlandish are declared "normal" by judicial fiat, while commonplace social virtues — marital fidelity, patriotism, religious observance, truthfulness — are openly scoffed at, and the military virtues are being methodically stomped out of existence.
Both these revolutions, the economic and the cultural, take us in the same direction, as has often been noted. Every change in our culture this past forty years has had the effect of removing something — the family, the church, the private academy — that stood between the individual and the state.
Thus the great victories of the Left, economic and cultural, have all bolstered state power. Having occupied so much territory, the Left must now defend it. To be sure, there are still small advances for them to make on a few fronts. We do not yet have "gay marriage," nor a thoroughly comprehensive system of racial classification, and citizens are still permitted to own firearms, smoke cigarettes, and hire their own doctors. Still, the Left can hardly hope to improve much on those colossal twentieth-century triumphs. Their main task is therefore to defend — to conserve — what they have won.
This change in the posture of the Left from offense to defense explains the reversal in polarity of the "gender gap," which occurred in 1964. Prior to that date, women seem (the data is only firm back to 1952, and therebefore fragmentary) to have consistently preferred Republican candidates in presidential elections; then they swung decisively to Democrats. They also began voting in greater numbers at about the same time, and in elections since 1980 more women than men have voted. It is only the fact that men prefer Republicans by much wider margins than women prefer Democrats that has allowed us any Republican administrations at all.
In the security-versus-risk division of temperament, women pile in on the "security" side. Though there are of course exceptions (it was a female cousin who introduced me to skydiving), women generally have a lower appetite for risk than men have. Female gamblers, female speculators, female practitioners of extreme sports, female explorers, female soldiers are a scattered few. Women in general have a strong preference for security over risk. Hence the gender gap and its 1964 flip-flop. Prior to that date, security could be found in traditional conservative verities, in home and church and community. LBJ's campaign to portray Barry Goldwater as a reckless militarist broke the spell, and the Great Society did the rest. "Security" is now represented by the welfare state.
There is a sense, in fact, in which women were just waiting for the welfare state. Women are natural socialists. Anyone who has lived in a communist country has noticed that women are much keener supporters of the system than men. George Orwell knew this, and has the hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four say:
It was always the women, and above all the young ones, who were the most bigoted adherents of the Party, the swallowers of slogans, the amateur spies and nosers-out of orthodoxy …
This connection — between femaleness and socialism — was in fact spotted much further back than that. In a play called The Assemblywomen, written about 400 B.C., Aristophanes has the women of Athens, disguised as men, taking over the assembly and voting themselves into power. Once in charge, they institute a program of pure socialism:
… everyone is to have an equal share in everything and to live on that; we won't have one man rich while another lives in penury, one man farming hundreds of acres while another hasn't got enough land to get buried in … No one will be motivated by need: everybody will have everything … the children will regard all older men as fathers …
Aristophanes' aim is bawdy comedy — it all ends with ugly old women demanding fair access to the services of virile young men (an early plea for affirmative action) — but along the way he put his finger on a truth about human nature.
The feminization of American politics — more women voting than men, and women preferring the party of the state, of security — thus helps shore up the Social-Democratic status quo. The phenomenon a colleague refers to as "the wussification of America" follows logically. No more risk, please. No more talk about rolling back the State or downsizing those departments of state that keep us safe and warm. No more of those nasty handguns. No restraints on the trial lawyers, who are working heroically to purge all risk from the products we buy in the marketplace.
It's going to get worse. The other big risk-averse segment of the population is the old, who are ever more numerous. This is not just a U.S. phenomenon; something similar is happening everywhere. The world's people at the end of this century will be older and less philoprogenitive than ever before. Life-spans will be longer, birth-rates lower, median ages higher everywhere, risk-avoidance an obsession.
So look for the wussification of the world. I recently wrote a review of Steven Mosher's new book, Hegemon, in which Mosher argues that China will seek to dominate Asia, and as much of the rest of the world as she can reach. A Chinese friend I discussed the book with pooh-poohed these fears. "He forgets the one-child policy," my friend said. "Half the people in China have no son; the other half have just one, who has been spoiled rotten. Chinese people are not going to sacrifice their 'little emperor' to fight some imperial war." In short, the Chinese will lose their appetite for risk — at least, for the very major risk involved in starting a war.
For millennia human beings lived with levels of risk that are unimaginable to us now. Life was a daily lottery, from infancy on, and the stakes were ultimate. John Colet, the 15th-century English humanist, was one of only two siblings out of twenty-two to survive childhood — probably not a remarkable distinction in the pre-modern world. Well within living memory, an infected blister could be fatal. Now we have conquered risk, or at least pushed it to the periphery of our awareness, and those of us who occasionally feel inclined to seek risk must go out of our way to find it. Barring catastrophe, the world of the twenty-first century will be a social democratic utopia — a dull, statist, risk-free Sweden, dominated by the values of the matron, the pensioner, the trial lawyer and the valetudinarian.
Now, I like my personal security as well as the next person, and the thought of burying twenty out of twenty-two children is unbearable. Yet a world without risk will be colorless and tame. It will also be economically and culturally stagnant. Businesses hedged about with risk-reducing regulations and watched over by eagle-eyed trial lawyers will not innovate. A coddled, supervised, feminized, disarmed populace will create nothing of value and will live to no purpose — and will be dimly aware that it lives to no purpose. Brian Aldiss wrote a story about a smug, safe, bourgeois world of the future that found it necessary to license a small number of deviants to shock and smash and pillage, just to re-introduce some necessary randomness. Perhaps we shall come to that. Most of what the human race has achieved was done against the odds. Do we really want to drive risk out of our lives? And if we do, will it, as Horace said of nature, somehow find a way back in?