Upon reaching the final page of University of Chicago professor Cass Sunstein's latest book on risk, two reasonable assumptions can be drawn as to his political (he would probably say ethical) persuasions - first, that he opposed military intervention in Iraq in 2003, and, second, that he favours far-reaching international action on climate change.
These are both perfectly respectable, if debatable, positions. It seems, however, as if this distinguished-service professor of jurisprudence, like many others across the political spectrum nowadays, is rather loath to debate things. Rather, he is in search of a technical tool to decide matters for us. Sunstein has found this in risk management.
He starts off well enough, wanting to steer us on a course between the opposing perils of inaction and overreaction in the face of potentially catastrophic risks.
The US, unlike Europe, he proposes, has developed an exaggerated fear of terror attacks while simultaneously underestimating the consequences of global warming. Why is this?
His book, aimed at a wide audience, usefully debunks a number of myths along the way. American Republicans are not as intransigent as is often made out. He reminds readers that it was the US that originally led the charge on combating climate change, while Europeans developed the precautionary principle, invoked in going to war in Iraq.
As others have done before him, Sunstein shows how little logic there is in precaution. Variously used to justify both action and inaction, its consequences can be as uncertain as the uncertainties it is called upon to ward against. Hence, for Sunstein, war in Iraq to reduce the risk of terror would always create new risks that we would then have to live with.
But this is where the analysis of a Chicago Law School lawyer is exposed as being as limited as those of both the pro-war and anti-war lobbies. Iraq should have been about more than calculating risk-risk tradeoffs. Political principles, such as state sovereignty, were at stake too. And no risk-management process can defend these.
Unlike others who may read this book, I have no problem with the use of cost-benefit analysis or future discounting, although, as Sunstein accepts, neither is an exact science. However, when to the best of our abilities all the facts and pseudo-facts are in, decision-making in a democracy still remains a politically contested arena.
It is never just information that determines policy, but rather how that information is interpreted through particular outlooks. Hence, absence of evidence for weapons of mass destruction might mean that they are not there, or that they are extremely well hidden. Either way, facts become secondary to the framework we apply to the world.
Citing the work of Paul Slovic and others, Sunstein reveals his own preference for the influence of emotional and psychological factors over cultural and sociological ones. In this regard he is in tune with the times. A society that is little more than an aggregate of individuals has trouble conceptualising the import and impact of broader forces.
Thus it is almost as an afterthought that he notes in his conclusions: "Of course, well-organized groups, the media and political leaders have power to influence the underlying dynamics." But there is precious little about these in the remaining pages. Perhaps they could serve as the subject for a future book?
In fact, Sunstein unconsciously reveals the answer to the problems he addresses very early on in the book. Whenever he worried as a child, his mother would ask: "What's the worst that could happen?" Sunstein confides that "her confidence was contagious". It is precisely societies without confidence that obsess about worst-case scenarios.
By Cass R. Sunstein
Harvard University Press
Published 6 November 2007
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