The rumpus about the Chief Medical Officer’s new guidance on drinking alcohol has a wider significance – beyond, that is, the narrow point that doing so in moderation brings no danger worth worrying about. It is a reminder of a cultural shift about risk and safety. Guidance on beer-drinking, bans on tobacco advertising, restrictions on free speech, child protection policies, laws that compel motorcyclists to wear helmets or car drivers seat belts, CCTV, the sugar tax debate, the Health and Safety Executive: all these were unknown within living memory. The notion of “safe spaces”, like the security message that helped to win David Cameron his majority, is a sign of the times.
Why has it happened? Is it because more government means more laws, and we are governed more than we were: by the overlapping layers of local councils, national government and the EU – not to mention the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assemblies, if we happen to live in those parts of Britain? Since men are more prone to take risks than women – more likely to gamble, smoke cigarettes, play extreme sports and take illegal drugs – is it something to do with a rise in the cultural power of women? How much connection is there between less risk and more diversity, since the more consciousness there is of ethnic or sexual differences – or of disability – the more pressure there will be on the state to rule and regulate? To what degree has mass immigration had an impact: after all, the more likely it is that your neighbour doesn’t speak English, the more likely he is to be a stranger – and the more likely he is to be a stranger the more likely it is that government will step in? What about the impact on public consciousness of Islamist terror and extremism?
Whatever the mix of reasons may be, there are clearly dangers if the balance between risk and safety swings too far towards the latter. Investing in an enterprise, backing a new product, setting up a small business – all these require risk: nothing venture, nothing win. The people who undertake these activities, without whom prosperity could not exists, are sometimes called “the risk-takers” – a phrase of praise that is perhaps more of the past than the present. (One is now at least as likely to hear the disapproving words “risk-taking behaviour”.) But there is more to the uses of risk even than the health of our economy. Without taking risks, people can’t test their own limits and expand their capacities – develop and grow. “Aspiration”, that vogue word among politicians, cannot be realised without risks. And risk is all bound up with a word that one hears them deploy less than they once did: freedom. The risks we need to take, and need others to take, can only be taken in a free society – that amalgam of the rule of law, democratic government, limited state power, free markets, strong families and flourishing civic institutions.
There is an organisation which exists to promote freedom: the Freedom Association. It undertakes research, among other activities. In the course of advancing freedom’s cause, I wonder if it might want to probe why there is less of it about in many ways than there was – and if any of possible reasons advanced earlier hold water – as well as how the idea of risk might best be popularised in a security-conscious society. That would mean polling, focus groups, and spending a bit of money, if there is any. This proposal looks rather modest when one considers the scale of the challenge. But mighty oaks from little acorns grow.