NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Culture Of Fear

December 7, 2000

Residents of wealthy countries such as the United States, Great Britain and Canada are living healthier and longer lives than every before -- yet these societies have become increasingly obsessed with health and safety. This is due to the rise of a new "non-risk" society and a "culture of fear," claims Mark Neal, a researcher who has examined the hidden costs of health, safety and environmental regulations.

  • New attitudes toward risk are shaped by trends such as "healthism" -- a belief that one can expect health and happiness as a basic right -- and a denial of death.
  • Premature death -- once commonplace among all ages -- is now seen as a singular atrocity which must be addressed, usually with more government regulation.

Neal says these cultural changes are caused by improvements in technology and health care. The public policy implications of our emerging risk-adverse society include:

  • Expansion of bureaucratic power governing health and safety regulators during the 1980s and 1990s even as conservative politicians advocated deregulation.
  • Creation of a "bureaucratic ratchet" in which industry gets blamed for commission of harmful acts, while regulators are blamed for omissions in regulations which allow those acts -- providing an incentive for regulators to add extraordinary margins of safety in developing and enforcing new regulations.

Another result is that lobby groups and anti-risk activists who "spin" certain developments and research findings to build more public support for additional regulations have been given additional power without responsibility.

Source: Mark Neal, "Risk Aversion: Rise of an Ideology," in Laura Jones (ed.), "Safe Enough? Managing Risk and Regulation," 2000, Fraser Institute, 2000, 4th Floor, 1770 Burrard Street, Vancouver, BC, Canada, V6J 3G7, (604) 688-0221.


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