The cost of banishing risk from our society

A problem with genetic modification (GM) is that it invites us to take risks and the twentieth century gnawed away our tolerance for risk gone bad.

It doesn’t help that insurance companies insure only fully calculable risk fully covered by premiums. So they have refused GM cover.

One big GM risk involves this complex calculation: will losing “GM-free” status lose food export markets? A deeper risk is the one science constantly courts as it opens up the unknown: what might it unleash?

Paradoxically, the more science has opened up the unknown, the safer and longer our lives have become and the more we think life can be risk-free. To bring us new benefits now, science must battle its own paradox.

Thus GM, its most dedicated opponents insist, must first be “proved” safe. Since science doesn’t deal in absolutes, such proof is impossible. Cars can’t be “proved” safe. Drinking too much water can kill you.

So where science cannot go, the absolutists insist the government must. They say the GM ban must stay.

It is not enough that the government has set up an approval regime so restrictive that only the most determined and well-funded GM developers will persevere. The risk is they will take their inquiring minds and knowledge across the Tasman or go to the United States, where the giant chemical and food companies are riding GM and the government fights their corner in international negotiations. Science is still ascendant there.

Or is it quite? Risklessness is a way of life in the United States, too. Its tort law system has twisted the constitutional right to life and pursuit of happiness into a right to a very long and very happy life. McDonalds didn’t tell you might get fat from eating its chips? Sue. (That one failed this month but it illustrates the mentality.)

This disease has infected Australia, where doctors faced an insurance crisis earlier this year. And here? Is the conviction of bike race organiser Astrid Andersen this month for not stopping a competitor ride down the wrong side of the road into an oncoming car a harbinger of wild jury innovations to come?

Usually in this country, however, we look to the government. A paradox of the 1990s was that the supposedly retreating state took on tasks no socialist expected of it 30 years ago: the supposedly conservative National party set welfare officials to “strengthen families”, for example.

The undercurrent is this: that we should not have to accept chance or the downsides of risk; the state should accept them on our behalf and do its utmost to eliminate them.

But there is a corollary: pursuing risklessness is expensive. As Don Brash said to the National party conference in July: “Shielding people from the consequences of their actions has costs.”

Brash is rightwing but in this case he was not on a rightwing line. He thought few — including himself — would make people pay for kidney dialysis for diabetes incurred by a lifetime of irresponsible eating. Brash was simply cautioning that before the state jumps in with yet another “free” (but expensive) service, it should think carefully about the costs.

Put aside the kidney case. What about “free” rescues of people who go up mountains in light clothing or yachting on the high seas? Should we taxpayers, going prudently about our lives, pay for the rescues or should they?

There is a general cost, too.

Every dollar spent rescuing irresponsible mountain picnickers or high-seas yachties is a taxed dollar not available to invest in productive enterprise. It is a dollar not available to build human capital in youngsters, treat the mentally ill or help a broken family get by.

That is, it is an opportunity cost. And it is probably inequitable.

A Labour-led government, fiscally constrained by international pressures, would likely feel that opportunity cost more keenly than a Brash one with smaller spending ambitions. That is, it is perhaps an issue more for the left than the right.

Risk-eliminating regulation, too, brings costs. The new building laws will add to the cost of all new houses and renovations — to ensure some houses in future don’t leak. The new occupational safety and health laws, valid in intention and some of the effects, add a cost to business, which constrains wages.

Risklessness brings another cost: a culture of blame. Can’t get an operation or a state house? Victim of medical science’s inability to pick, and cure, meningitis 100 per cent of the time? Go on Holmes (or its equivalent). Frighten ministers, who in any case want to believe they can solve every problem.

The risk in this is bad public policy. Bad public policy risks crowding out beneficial things most people want the state to do and/or reducing the ability of the private wealth-creators to make people richer as they want.

Good public policy doesn’t pretend to abolish risk. Good policy manages risk because there are upsides as well as downsides from taking risks. The tangled risks in GM make it an exemplary test case.