Risky Business

I know a couple with small children who refuse to travel together on airplanes in order to guard against their kids suddenly becoming orphaned. Yet they routinely hop into the family car, even though the latter is, statistically speaking, a far more dangerous mode of transportation. I’ve always been fascinated by the subject of risk, particularly the amount of risk each of us is willing to take in the course of our daily activities. And, as our government continues its encroachment into what used to be our private affairs, the question increasingly becomes: how much risk are we allowed to take.

As we’re forced to weave our way through the ever-expanding labyrinth of warnings and regulations and outright prohibitions, the common refrain is, “If it saves just one life, it’s worth the effort.” But, of course, that’s not true. There would be no skiing deaths if we would just outlaw skiing; traffic fatalities would drop dramatically if we’d lower maximum speed limits to 15 mph; and mandating parasol use in sunny weather would go a long way toward eliminating skin cancer. And yet, as a society, we’ve decided not to take those steps. (That doesn’t mean the second Obama administration won’t look into these matters or that New York’s Mayor Bloomberg won’t institute a Comprehensive Parasol Initiative.)

When the State jumps in to health matters, the justification is often the nebulous “cost to society,” but that, more often than not, is merely an excuse to use the power of government to do a bit of social engineering. And, of course, the selective use of that power leads to all sorts of contradictions because, after all, good and bad behaviors are, very often, in the eyes of the beholders.

So how much risk are you willing to take? How much risk are you willing to let your kids take? How much risk should each of us be prohibited from taking? The answers—and their inconsistencies or unintended consequences—are fun to think about.

  1. The Mugwump

    If you substitute the word liberty for risk, the answer is easy.  People should have as much liberty/risk as they can be personally responsible to handle.    

  2. Mollie Hemingway

    I was just thinking about this during this week’s meeting at my school of the parent-teacher association.

    A Virginia police officer met with us to discuss safety and school shootings and he was actually great — realistic, friendly, strong supporter of freedom in general, told us all to get NRA training, etc.

    But at the end I asked him how many schools were in our city (many), how long he’d been a cop (two decades) and how many school shootings there had been (zero).

    It’s OK to be cautious and prepared but you have to have a realistic understanding of the risk when considering expensive (in terms of time, money, effort) items in response.

  3. KC Mulville

    The thrill of using power is usually justified by its benefits. But then you have to wonder whether the officials (who prepared for it and made sacrifices for years) are more interested in the benefit or the thrills.

    “If it saves one life” is just trying to say that a politician should be allowed to get his power thrills no matter what the real benefit. It gives him a reason to be an important person, for the smallest benefit possible.

    The Constitution and conservatism want to make the exercise of power to be boring and dull. They want to turn it into a heroic question of mythic proportions.

  4. Pseudodionysius

    I view any attempt by the State in these matters with a Squeal of Misfortune(*).

    (*) All Rights Reserved by the International House of Pseudodionysius

  5. Paul J. Croeber

    Fun to think about indeed and helps one to approach life more economically (that is to say in terms of trade offs).  The “if it saves one life, it’s worth it” idea is held only by those for whom the cost is acceptable because it is borne by others.  Only when one bears the full burden of their conviction can their true tolerance for risk be know.  This topic fascinates me and I look forward to a slew of comments. 

  6. Cutlass

    Couldn’t be bothered to label that it wasdrinking alcohol in the stuff, rather than rubbing alcohol– there’s no way my daughter could have eaten enough of it to cause her harm, it would’ve saved time, money and abject terror.  Same sort of problem shows up a lot in other healthcare stuff– very simple to convey information iswithheld rather than risk people making a decision, and especially with pregnancy they don’t tell youwhy they want you to do things. 

    Hand sanitizer can get you drunk?!?! Why, we’d better put it behind the counter, make you get a prescription, show an ID, limit how much you can get, plaster it with pictures of diseased livers and humiliating Facebook photos … 

    Uh oh! If it’s harder to get sanitizer then people will carry more germs (!!!!!), and more people will get sick and…

    OMG!!! I’m having a panic attack! What? I have to go through what to get a Xanax?

    Whatever. I’ll just buy something from that drug dealer in the alley. Huh? You really expect me to go back there unarmed … and without hand sanitizer?

  7. Scott R


    So many “unsafe” products that we take for granted — gas stoves, fireplaces, backyard swimming pools, swingsets, speedboats, motorcycles, mopeds, even automobiles — would never be allowed to come to market if they were just now being introduced.

    We owe so much of the fun and independence in our lives to the inertia of our less risk-averse past.  

  8. ChrisinDCburbs

    The risk-reward calculations that we make for ourselves are often based to some extent on emotion, rather than logic, as Mr. Sajak points out through the example of his friends above.  This strikes me as perfectly natural because ultimately what we are determining is our comfort level with whatever the risky activity is.  (To answer Mr. Sajak’s question I have a high risk tolerance for my work, but not with my finances.)

    What troubles me is when our political representatives apply the same process (i.e. using emotion) into the risk-reward calculations they make on our behalf.  I believe this is malpractice – a policymaker’s personal comfort about a risky behavior (transfats, guns, painkillers – take your pick) should have zero impact on my liberty to pursue activities which are legal and I am personally comfortable pursuing. 

    I’m not arguing that policymakers don’t have the responsibility to restrict liberty for sound policy reasons, but that restrictions should result from thoughtful contemplation and analysis, not from emotional based reasoning like the “if it saves one life”.  Unfortunately people understand emotion and its a powerful political motivator so I expect to continue to be disappointed.  Le sigh…

  9. Andrew Barbaro

    The government needs to be “seen to be doing” and if that’s a cue to meddle in your lives, then that’s what they will do: the world over.The other concern is reaction to tragedy and the poorly-judged legislation that follows.

  10. Scott R
    Pat Sajak: So how much risk are you willing to take? How much risk are you willing to let your kids take?

    Can’t bring myself to wear a bike helmet, a life jacket, or sunscreen.

    The kids haven’t had to wear bike helmets since they turned twelve, they wear life jackets only when it’s extremely rough water, and their mom goobers them up with sunscreen despite my protests (ugh, and yuk).

  11. DocJay

    Living in fear is not a pleasant way to go through life. Pat, I’m taking my kid back east for a college tour and he asked me two days ago when. I told him he’d know this weekend when the Bruins schedule comes out. We’re going to Disneyland in April and im checking Kings and Ducks schedule. Priorities baby.

  12. Call2Doody
    Pat Sajak: So how much risk are you willing to take?

    I try to minimize risk, and it has served me well. But there’s one risky endeavor I’d like to recommend to you.

    Please run for the United States Senate from California.

    You’re very popular, and you could win.

    Go ahead, give it a spin.

  13. DocJay

    Run Pat, run. As far as risk, I’m about to go to Christmas Island. Only one plane in and out each week yet that risk seems like nothing compared to exposing myself as a gun toting patriotic conservative in a country currently run by folks who comport themselves like Third Riech thugs.

  14. Travis Lindsay

    This post immediately reminded me of a video of Milton Friedman arguing this exact point with a young Michael Moore. As always, Friedman is very logical with his argument and, as always, Moore just doesn’t understand logic very well. Here’s the link.

  15. Pat Sajak

    Pat Sajak: So how much risk are you willing to take?

    I try to minimize risk, and it has served me well. But there’s one risky endeavor I’d like to recommend to you.

    Please run for the United States Senate from California.

    You’re very popular, and you could win.

    Go ahead, give it a spin. · 21 minutes ago

    Let me think about that. Er…no.

    (But I appreciate the sentiment.)

  16. Misthiocracy

    I’ve read that the relative risk of airplanes vs cars depends, like most statistics, on how one crunches the numbers.

    If one looks at the odds of dying per mile travelled, then yes airplanes are much safer.

    If you look at number of fatalities per capita per year, then yes airplanes are much safer.

    However, apparently if you look at the odds of dying per trip taken, cars come out looking safer.  

    The key is, since we take many more car rides than we take airplane rides, the long-term odds of dying by car are higher then by airplane.

    I forget where I read this information, so please forgive me for failing to provide a link or a citation to back up the claim.

  17. Misthiocracy
    Pat Sajak


    Pat Sajak: So how much risk are you willing to take?

    I try to minimize risk, and it has served me well. But there’s one risky endeavor I’d like to recommend to you.

    Please run for the United States Senate from California.

    You’re very popular, and you could win.

    Go ahead, give it a spin. · 21 minutes ago

    Let me think about that. Er…no.

    Ok, how about choosing “q” upon your first spin of “the wheel”?

  18. Ralph

    Famous neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson’s excellent book Take The Risk covers this subject in great detail. It is an excellent read.

  19. Foxfier
    Misthiocracy:  (long explanation of ways to divvy up risk involved in planes vs cars)

    Another point on planes-vs-cars– it compares something that is pretty even in risk per flight– plane rides– with something that is wildly uneven in risks– risk per car ride.  There is no way that my driving to the library (walking distance, in good weather and without children, and in an area that is comfortable to be a pedestrian in) should be grouped with, say, driving from LA to Death Valley with a snow storm while exhausted.  (Not that I know any young idiot that would do such a thing….)

    And yet another- in a plane ride, there is nothing you can do.  In a car ride, fewer than half of the accidents that happen are the fault of someone not in the car with you.

  20. SParker

    It’s the educational value of my boneheaded choices that I’d miss when my risk-taking gets too circumscribed.  As the Kingfish says, good judgement comes from experience, which comes from bad judgement.    ”I surely wouldn’t have done it if I’d known what I was getting into,” is a pretty common refrain from people who’ve done anything.  I suppose that doesn’t apply to children under the age of consent under our care, but they’ve always proven  proficient at getting around  guidance.  Nature is awfully clever.

    I suppose if risk assessors and mitigators were better at it, I might think differently.  But with the examples of the relative safety of bare-knuckled boxing vs. 16 oz. gloves and modern football equipment vs. Bronko Nagurski togs (the safety equipment becomes the instrument of damage), I think maybe they aren’t.  In the circumstance, I’d rather live with the consequences of my own dreadful choices.

    For some reason you’ve made me want to smoke heavily and reread Yevegny Zamyatin’s We.  Thanks.