Saturday, May 07, 2005

More on Risk

I agree with Henry Farrell (and with Henry) that risk is fundamental. I actually think that risk explains everything in the world. A few examples:

--Morality: Michael Walzer's theory of how to fight a just war (as opposed to what makes a war just) is basically a willingness to expose your soldiers to some risk in order to save civilian lives.
-- Rebellion: James C. Scott argues that what caused rebellion in Southeast Asia was a changed tax scheme which shifted risk on to the peasants (a head tax as opposed to a percentage).
--Contemporary politics: Jacob Hacker is, well, really smart.

An interesting thing to note about risk and politics is what Richard Epstein -- a libertarian turning towards utilitarianism -- writes about John Rawls:
[T]he issue [of income distribution] appeared in the eyes of many to dominate his entire thinking about social institutions in that the central task of politics was to implement in connection with the "difference principle" some "maximin" solution whereby social institutions were altered in a direction that maximized the position of the least well-off in society, and thus compressed the wealth across individuals, without altering the rank order. In large measure this view was driven by an assumption that is not strictly required by a veil-of-ignorance approach, namely, one of extreme risk aversion. That position requires an extensive welfare state to engage in the needed redistribution from which it is just a short step to claiming that the good Rawlsian must accept a universe that is rich in positive rights — the right to housing, health care, education, and minimum subsistence. The hard question for the future lies in the extent to which Rawls's general veil approach can be disentangled from the particular prescriptions that he defended or which were subsequently defended by his many followers on the left. My own admiration for Rawls's work stems from the strong conviction that this separation can in fact be made.
In this account, the split between "liberals" and "libertarians" is an assumption about attitude towards risk: liberals think people are basically risk-averse and libertarians think people are basically risk-loving. The corollary is that conservatives know that people are risk-averse, but don't care (why else would they want to shift risk from business and government to little people?).

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