New Year, New Anxieties

Rule by experts is increasing our sensitivity to risk

12th January 2023
Bruce Oliver Newsome

Elite promises of security are making us more anxious. We need to re-learn how to assess risks for ourselves, argues Bruce Oliver Newsome.

Last year, more than 1 million British children were treated by the NHS for mental health problems, up 39 per cent on the previous 12 months. Around 1 in 5 adults in Britain experienced some form of depression in the first 3 months of 2021, over double pre-pandemic figures. Covid-19 – and repeated lockdowns – led to an increase in the number of people suffering with mental health problems. But the acceleration began long before the pandemic struck. The latest dire statistics reinforce a long term – and now sadly familiar – trend.

The explanations as to why more people are suffering with poor mental health are also becoming familiar: austerity, standardized testing in schools, social media, Brexit, social injustice, climate change, the Royal Family treats me like a spare…

I would like to propose a different explanation: the more society attempts to guard against all risk, the more sensitive we become to risk in general.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck labelled this problem reflexive modernization. In a 2006 lecture delivered at the London School of Economics, Living in the World Risk Society, Beck explained:

Radicalization of modernity produces this fundamental irony of risk: science, the state, and the military are becoming part of the problem they are supposed to solve. This is what “reflexive modernization” means: we are not living in a post-modern world, but in a more-modern world. It is not the crisis, but the victory of modernity, which, through the logics of unintended and unknown side-effects, undermines basic institutions of first-modernity.

Our increased sensitivity to risk in general is well accepted, although critics dispute which risks are exaggerated. Beck complained that risk societies exaggerate health risks and economic risks, while neglecting environmental risks. However, perhaps environmental risks and health risks are exaggerated to the neglect of economic risks. For instance, Mattias Desmet, a Belgian psychologist, points to a generalized ‘free-floating fear’ to explain the popular readiness for lockdown in 2020, at the expense of our non-Covid-related health and the economy.

‘Mass formation’ is Desmet’s central social-psychological concept. He defines it as ‘a kind of group hypnosis that destroys individuals’ ethical self-awareness and robs them of their ability to think critically.’ Desmet uses it to explain rising mental ill-health, drug abuse, loneliness, societal breakdown and political violence.

Distorted ethics and distorted perceptions lead to a distorted sense of risk. The perversity of the ‘risk society’ is that this practice is increasing, despite scientific, economic, political and social development. An increasing capacity to control risk does not leave people feeling more secure. Instead, as societies develop, they become more sensitive to risks in general, and to some risks in particular. We can see this increased sensitivity in the increased use of the word ‘risk’. Over the course of the past century, the use in English-language books of the terms ‘risk’ and ‘security’ has grown by hundreds of percent.

Beck characterized risk societies as developed societies but to be accurate, risk societies are distorted risk societies. Risks are not always tackled or even prioritized rationally. Some risks are championed by interest groups at the expense of others. Some are assessed incorrectly.

Successive national governments have significantly contributed to such distortions as they have taken on board ever more responsibility for risks that were once considered a matter for individuals. The transfer of responsibilities from individuals to governments accelerated with industrialization, globalization, urbanization, democratization and particularly socialism and progressivism. For instance, in 1974 Britain’s government legislated for a Health and Safety Executive (HSE), as well as increased unemployment benefits to protect workers who lose their livelihood. The HSE not only still exists, it has grown and absorbed other organisations. Yet it remains a non-departmental agency, effectively a QUANGO, with great responsibility but little accountability.

Agencies such as the HSE have been successful in lowering some private risks, such as the chance of accidents in the workplace. However, for individuals, losing control of the potential risks they face is one of the drivers of increased sensitivity to that risk. The HSE recently reported that ‘stress and poor mental health is the number one cause of work-related ill health.’

Governments have certainly mismanaged some risks. For example, the British government seemed unprepared for pandemic in 2019 and then over-compensated for this lack of planning in 2020. But such mismanagement is not always well-meaning or accidental. Governments sometimes deliberately distort risks.

Our sensitivity to risk is intensified by what has come to be called the ‘politics of fear’ or the ‘politics of security’. Some politicians play on popular fears in order to discourage opposition. For example, George W. Bush’s administration (2001-2009) in the US, and Tony Blair’s administration (1997-2007) in Britain, both arguably used the fear of terrorism to avoid scrutiny of their policies.

Indeed, the politics of fear enables the mismanagement of risks by lowering accountability. The threat of terrorism was certainly under-assessed in the 1990s, as the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, proved. But by the 2010s, when governments belatedly re-assigned officials to countering espionage and organized crime, the pendulum had swung the other way. The threat of insurgency was under-assessed until years into the Western occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. The threat of state failure and trans-national migration was under-assessed until a wave of states failed in the late 2000s. Financial risks were under-assessed until the crash of 2008. Pandemic risks were under-assessed until Covid-19. The risks of lockdown were under-assessed until subsequent crises in international trade, mental health, employment rates and social cohesion.

Governments are not solely responsible for the politics of fear. Self-interested industries participated in the exaggeration of terrorism risks in the 2000s and of the risks posed by Covid-19 in 2020. Left-wing politicians and their media cheerleaders relish opportunities for increased political centralization. Risk societies welcome any palliative for free-floating fear. This nexus was well articulated, at the height of the war on terror, by the philosophers Damian Cox, Michael Levine and Saul Newman who wrote that,

The politics of security relies on an extreme sensitivity to threats of violence – sensitivity out of all proportion to actual levels of risk. The underlying logic of this response – in which demands for security are established on the basis of the manipulative creation of insecurity – leads to a highly anti-democratic political environment.

The media is complicit – at least when their dominant perceived interests align with those of the government, as we saw when mainstream journalists propagated the myth of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in 2003, the ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’ myth of 2020, and pursued witch hunts of lockdown critics. Desmet describes how mass media can undermine people’s face-to-face social skills and motivations. Individuals become socially lazy. Societies become ‘uniformized’. Public discourse becomes the property of a cultural elite. Anxious people seek security from perceived threats.

Another co-conspirator is academia, often posing as the sole arbiter of science and liberalism, while producing work that represents neither. Indeed, Desmet starts his book with the academia-media distortion of science into an elitist ‘ideology’. When it comes to attempts to change the public’s behaviour – perhaps to stop climate change or to stop the spread of Covid-19 – scientific discourse can become an instrument of opportunism, manipulation, and power. Politicians have an interest in ‘following the science’, even when it may not be fully accurate, because they can claim credit when things go right while denying all personal responsibility when things go wrong.

Back in the 1990s, governments rushed to deny that Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (mad cow’s disease) could pose a risk to consumers of beef. Fast forward to 2020, nominally science-led, liberal democracies controlled Covid-19 in unscientific and illiberal ways. Britain’s Conservative government delegated policy to epidemiologists, whose expertise was far too narrow to consider all the economic, medical, and social risks.

Elite control over private risks cannot increase forever. For one thing, governments will run out of resources. We already see governments borrowing more, without funding future fiscal liabilities for public healthcare, pensions, and unemployment benefits.

But the biggest curb on elite control of private risks is likely to be populism. We have already begun to see signs of a populist backlash against progressive elitism. Currently, a progressive consensus is dominant across academia, media, and the government (even under a Conservative administration). Contrary to what progressives say, populism is not anti-liberal, anti-democratic, or anti-risk-management. After all, private expectations for public security continue to grow. But populists warn against declining personal autonomy. People want to take back control of their liberties and rights.

The populist backlash is not just philosophical, it is risk efficient. At some point, society must realize the counter-productiveness of transferring responsibility for risk to a government-academia-media elite. People make better decisions when trusted to decide for themselves rather than having to defer to elite experts in every matter.

Fiscally, philosophically, and risk-efficiently, we ordinary citizens need to take more responsibility for our own risks.

Bruce Oliver Newsome, Ph.D., is a professor of political science and the author of “A Practical Introduction to Security and Risk Management,” now in its second edition (Perseublishing). You can follow Bruce on Twitter: @riskyscientists

Photo by Tai’s Captures on Unsplash