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The Myth of a Risk-free Life

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Skiers sometimes die, as do mountain climbers and motorcyclists and bicyclists, because what they do routinely is dangerous, risky. Indeed, there is very little in human life that does not entail some measure of risk, even fatal risk.

When I moved into Silverado Canyon in Orange Country, CA, I did so with full knowledge that the place is exposed to certain serious hazards—earthquakes would hit harder because the houses are on steep slopes, fires would spread faster because vegetation is abundant, even mudslides are likely because after a fire the ground is ready to move around quite freely. But let’s face it I liked the area a lot. The Sierra Madre atmosphere, the funkiness of the neighborhood, the rustic abode in which I would be living meant enough to me to take on the risk of living there. The region was also near enough to more populated and developed areas so that one wouldn’t be out in the boonies like a hermit.

So, I decided that the risk of my home burning down wasn’t great enough to override the benefits I would gain from living there. And to this day, even after the fires that may still consume my home, I would insist on this. But California Senator Diane Feinstein and her cohorts disagree with me, think the risks of living in places such as Silverado Canyon are too great and no one ought to be permitted to assume them. You might ask, “The risks to whom?” Well, the Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, created following the 2003 wildfires by Gray Davis and which included Senator Feinstein, held that “habitat preservation and environmental protection have often conflicted with sound fire safe planning” and “[b]rush management is not allowed in coastal sage scrub during the California gnatcatcher nesting season, from March 1st through August 15th. This small bird only lives in coastal sage scrub and is listed as a threatened species by the federal government. Any harm to this bird could result in fines and penalties.”

So the risks are not only those faced by people but those that some bird or other must endure. And this cannot be allowed. Others in government insist that they are trying to shield mostly people from the risk of fires. All in all, what all these people appear to prefer for everyone—although only their own behavior would show if this includes them as well—is a risk free life.

Does that mean that Senator Feinstein & Co. would rather not have us drive to work and home? Does this mean that visiting our parents or grandparents should be prohibited if it involves driving or riding in a car? Do they also wish to ban hand-gliding, skiing, mountain climbing and all those jobs, sports, and games that teem with risks?

I doubt it. What I seriously suspect is that all this supposed worry about risks to everyone, including birds, is nothing more than posturing and catering to the fears many people have at certain times in their lives, vis-à-vis life’s hazards. By pretending that the risks of ordinary life in their jurisdictions can be erased with the stroke of a pen, provided enough politicians want that, these people are engaging in gross deception. Of course, they couldn’t do it without the cooperation of their constituents who, sadly, have come to expect the impossible dream that’s being promised to them. Indeed, a great many citizens appear to believe they are entitled to such a life, at the expense of other citizens. This political round robin of economic cannibalism is now routine; so it is no great surprise that millions have bought into it even when the prospects of satisfaction are completely mythical.

In life there are risks. Sometimes the better you want to live, the more interesting you want life to be, the greater the risks. The task of the law of a free society should only be to make sure that those taking the risks bear the cost of any loss they encounter in the process. Let no one be able to dumb the loss he or she incurs on others who decide to live less risky lives. But trying to ban risk taking is futile.

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    Tibor Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at Chapman University's Argyros School of B&E and is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution (Stanford University, CA). His most recent book is "Libertarianism Defended" (Ashgate, 2006).