‘Safety first’: the war on risk

Safety has supplanted liberty as the driving force of our political culture. This is a cul-de-sac for democracy

A mask on a statue of Queen Victoria in Manchester earlier this year. The government response to Covid-19 was less whimsical (©Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Holding difficult conversations in a democracy can prove surprisingly tricky. At first sight it should not be that way. After all, democracy thrives on open discussion. Those who aspire to lead compete to persuade. Democratic politics is three-quarters talk, as Michael Oakeshott put it. Yet, in practice, broaching sensitive subjects can be career suicide for politicians. Those who tell voters something they do not wish to hear, or ask them to choose between highly unpalatable alternatives, risk provoking anger and an electoral backlash. It is tempting to kick problems into the long grass or avoid difficult topics altogether.

Vigorous democratic citizenship has always been problematic. This was understood by the great minds of antiquity, from Plato to Cicero. Virtue is not easy to cultivate, and even harder to sustain. The transactional nature of leadership in a democracy means there exists a persistent, inescapable danger that the people will expect too much, or that rulers will take decisions that sap individual self-reliance. Few grasped this enduring problem quite as profoundly as Alexis de Tocqueville. In his masterwork Democracy in America, Tocqueville warned of the danger that democratic politics might “fix” citizens “irrevocably in childhood”, while casting politicians as their parents. Government would become about shielding the public from the vicissitudes of life. Friedrich Hayek likewise warned of the “relief from responsibility” that this style of democratic politics permitted. It was one that distorted the true nature of political leadership, and produced a population lacking in independence. There are good reasons to believe that this is exactly the kind of democratic citizenship that now prevails across the contemporary West.

Take the fixation with “security”. Safeguarding the citizenry is the foundational purpose of government, but recent decades have seen a rapid expansion in the psychological and policy boundaries of this remit. In Britain, for example, by the time of the 2010 National Security Strategy, it was clear that a threshold had been crossed. The NSS is a remarkable document: utterly vacuous, useless as a “strategy”, but an endlessly expansive list of Bad Things That Might Happen: radical Islamic terrorism, computer hacking, floods, Artificial Intelligence, pandemics, “severe space weather”, organised crime, DNA sequencing, quantum computing, and innumerable other challenges. While it was a vapid document, it offered deep illumination into the political culture which produced it. There was no sense of a hierarchy of priorities, nor an indication of how these problems might be overcome. In other words, the exercise was not remotely substantive. Its importance lies elsewhere, in highlighting that the individuals who run the British state evidently understood their principal duty as being to ensure the “safety” of citizens from any and all “risks”. Their overriding objective was to ensure that people could go about their business “without fear”.

This was an extraordinary, unfulfillable ambition, and I wrote as much at the time in Political Quarterly. Politicians had declared war on “risk” itself. It signalled something fundamental about the relationship that now prevails between state and citizen. Government has assumed responsibility for defeating challenges that might cause “fear”; and it does so presumably because politicians calculate that much of the citizenry expect as much. And who can blame them? The political storm that accompanied the real storm of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans served as a stark warning to politicians that they will bear the responsibility where the public feel “unsafe”. In Britain, we saw the same phenomenon play out with the 2007 floods, the swine flu outbreak of 2009, and the 2011 urban riots. The realities—that it takes time to mobilise massive aid to a disaster zone, that governments cannot control the weather, or that preventing the spread of infectious diseases in a densely populated society is difficult—cut little ice in the hysteria that accompanied these events. Politicians are expected to have a magic wand and—as a matter of electoral necessity—they compete to convince the public that such a wand exists.

In such a climate it is easy to understand why, faced with the coronavirus pandemic that spread from China in late 2019, governments and citizens alike rapidly plumped for a maximalist definition of “safety”. People were barred from leaving their homes, economies were ground to a halt, and all resources were directed to preserving the capacity of healthcare infrastructures to treat those with the virus. Other conditions—including illnesses which are statistically far more dangerous—were downgraded in importance. The cost of this decision in lives and trauma will prove immense. It is likely that governments have inflicted economic costs that will endure for decades. And this was done with strong public support.

But there was a problem. By mid-April of 2020 it was abundantly clear that that there existed no straightforward path to lifting the “lockdown” or returning to normality. How could there be? Politicians now trade in the psychological currency of “safety”: and how can they possibly deliver safety from a virus for which there is no cure? It turned out there is no magic wand after all. So what to do? Don’t lift the lockdown and watch the economy collapse. Do lift it and risk excoriation if the virus spreads rapidly once again. Either way, politicians will be blamed. And they will certainly be attacked by citizens who have been encouraged to even hold others responsible for their mental health.

In Christianity and History, published in 1949, the great historian Herbert Butterfield wrote that modern science has “enabled us to build up” a “tremendous . . . barrier against fire, famine, plague, and violence”. It is a “vast system of insurance”. This is, of course, a wonderful thing. But it also means that citizenries are unaccustomed to living with collective risk and fear. This was once a familiar part of human existence. No longer. Bizarrely, we find ourselves in a situation where a generation which is the safest to ever exist seems prone to remarkable bouts of fear. “Anxiety” has become a staple of daily life.

It is difficult to imagine governments opting for such drastic measures, say, 30 years ago. But safety has supplanted liberty as the driving force of our political culture. If one were a cynic, one might think this is partly because it is far easier for politicians of all stripes to concentrate on providing “safety” than to spearhead truly complex discussions about social, economic, and cultural problems. It may be a way of offering leadership that is undoubtedly important but intellectually undemanding and focused on the here-and-now. Who wants to put their head above the parapet and discuss the fact that the West is increasingly stagnant? It would be a brave politician indeed who examined how we might achieve real, sustained, and widespread economic growth to make us more prosperous and less unequal. Doing so would entail killing a lot of sacred cows, of more than one political herd. Similarly there is minimal political incentive to tell the public the truth about productivity, skill, and educational problems (not least when areas of the higher education sector look like a Ponzi scheme); again, the scale of the task is immense. And where would one even begin cleaning up the public finances?

In short, where so many people have a major stake in the current order—from large, parasitical bureaucracies to the eyewatering expense of tax credits—even holding a meaningful conversation about reform is extremely risky for politicians, much less actually doing anything about it. These problems are ubiquitous in democracies across the West. It is far easier to shift the focus to other things. The politics of safety—both real and emotional—could be a form of collective placebo therapy. Citizens and politicians alike use it to occupy themselves and distract from larger, more intellectually demanding matters.

To take another unfortunate aspect of public life, identity politics might serve a comparable purpose. One does not have to be a cynic to ponder the true motivations of those who fixate on identitarian dogmas. After all, these concepts are not only philosophically incoherent but transparently selective. So completely does identity politics reverse the trajectory of crucial liberal cultural developments of the last half century that only the naïve would take it at face value. There are
certainly plenty of career opportunities in oppression.

People know that to stress identities is the quickest way to advance their career prospects. There is no faster way to shut critics down than to point out that they are a member of a certain biological group and thus cannot hold a legitimate opinion. And stirring the pot of group-based resentment has proven a wonderful formula for politicians who have nothing substantive to say. Cue surreal yet heated arguments about quotas, bathrooms, speech, and whether my right to self-esteem is imperilled by you expressing your opinion. Cue pitchforks and witch-hunts. In the United States, the Democrats have arguably come to regard the promotion of identity politics as the core purpose of their party. Donald Trump recognised that there were similarly fruitful opportunities on the Republican side.

Identity politics serves to divert public conversations towards discussion of which groups are unjustly getting a larger piece of the pie, and how this might be fixed. Once again it is much easier for politicians, public officials, and intellectuals to fixate on this than to tackle complex problems of how we make the entire pie bigger by rejuvenating Western economies, enhancing prosperity, and driving scientific and technological innovation. Doing so is imperative if lives are to improve. The stakes are high. For many people it is becoming financially prohibitive to form family units. In such a climate, corrosive political conflicts will cascade, and worsen.

We should be afraid for the prospects and life chances of twentysomethings. We need to improve those chances, lest the rest of us become afraid of that generation. Think about it. Their political consciousness has been framed by constant crisis and dysfunction, from the 2008 crash to years of arguments about debts and cuts, from pervasive institutional failure to an intellectual culture hostile to Western civilisation. The situation has manifested itself in different ways across the democratic world, but there is a consistent mood of sullen alienation and interest in radical political experiments. This generation are resentful of the fact that they missed “the good times”. And the 2020 pandemic may condemn many of them to permanent unemployment. In his magisterial book An Uncompromising Generation the historian Michael Wildt explores how, in interwar Germany, the experience of an educated generation born c.1900-1914 was one of a relentless succession of debilitating crises. Expectations of rising living standards were thwarted. In the end, something broke. Many of that generation sought to transcend crisis through a radical politics that promised decisive action. And we all know how that turned out. The collective generational experience of our younger citizens should be a cause for acute alarm—many of them have already been trained to be highly intolerant—and time is running out to improve matters.

Fixing challenges of this complexity is hard. It necessitates telling voters things they do not want to hear, and them bearing burdens they resent. The temptation to talk about something else is often irresistible. And so, once again, we distract ourselves. Those who exercise public responsibility, or seek to be engaged citizens, must reflect seriously on the very possibilities of leadership in such a climate. There may be a good reason why decision-makers visibly struggle to steer the ship of state. Who on earth could consistently provide happiness or relief from fear and anxiety for tens of millions of people? How could one produce “just” outcomes when one is compelled to treat people as members of biological groups? How can one hold painful national conversations about the need to rethink what we do in our economic lives and the public sector, and discuss hard work or delayed gratification?

The problem is this: we no longer expect leaders to take difficult decisions on our behalf, and then justify them to us through means of persuasion. Instead, Western societies increasingly expect their leaders to make them happy. And, when those leaders inevitably fail, we are chronically dissatisfied with them. Endeavouring to gratify people is a fundamentally different exercise from making hard choices—indeed, it is its polar opposite. That is where democratic politics has gone wrong, and why, in the 21st century, we are marooned on the shores of discontent. Politicians and civil servants, even the most proficient among them, are not miracle workers. They cannot make us happy, nor spare us from the uncertainties of life. To try is a case of mission impossible. Yet millions of us still expect them to do so.

We need to pose a stark, perhaps painful, question. Is it even possible for successful leadership to occur under such conditions? I would suggest not. Leaders can never satisfy a public possessed of this outlook. And if labouring to do so encapsulates their entire professional experience of politics, they will not be equipped to grapple with the deeper challenges involved in the art of statesmanship. Government and governed alike must confront this reality. The result is a degraded populace and degraded public officials, as Tocqueville foresaw. He warned that the citizenry might become “nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals”, with government being their “shepherd”. “Wise” government would be an impossibility in such conditions.

For the great minds and political thinkers of antiquity, the highest virtue of statesmen was “Prudence”, understood as the skill of giving the right answer at the right moment. That was the very essence of statecraft. We might go further. Prudence, for the historian John Pocock, should be understood as the ability to take decisions which “stand the test of time”. In other words, wisdom counts. True statesmanship consists not in a style of politics that seeks to make citizens happy but, rather, in taking decisions on behalf of the community. It entails persuading the members of that community that those decisions were necessary. This, in turn, demands a citizenry with a realistic sense of what it is possible to have, and what they can expect government to achieve. If people expect too much, leaders will be doomed to fail, and hesitant to act. Statecraft is not about evading difficulties. It is about taking decisions in spite of them.

The West is economically stagnant. It is decaying culturally and politically. Institutional degeneration is widespread. Yet there is hope. Liberal civilisation boasts immense resources, a vast population, and a track record of reinvention and renewal. To do so again we need to shift the public conversation. Thankfully the foundation of democratic politics—persuasion—can help. Leaders need to articulate compelling visions. A party that conveys a sense of unifying national purpose and shared destiny would likely be a potent force. Imagine politicians competing over grand, multi-dimensional proposals for national renewal—perhaps including major boosts in spending on science and mathematics education; new infrastructure projects that will be used by millions; liberating entrepreneurs from stifling red tape; empowering individuals to make their own choices; and imaginative, lucrative projects in the realm of biology, computing, or the exploration of space. It is not difficult to imagine that this would be far more popular than warring over pronouns or the comfort blankets of a fictitious “security”.

The culture of democratic politics is stuck in a cul-de-sac. We all sense it. And we are collectively responsible for this state of affairs. For the sake of ourselves and future generations, there is no more urgent political task than finding a way out.