Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Risk to Ourselves and Each Other

Photo: Sgt. 1st Class Jerimiah Richardson
Here's an attempt at a general framework for thinking about risk and personal decisions during Covid. Not everyone will agree on the specifics or how to balance them, but hopefully this provides a way of having a coherent and civilized conversation.

  1. In general, people should be free to live their lives as they choose.
  2. Nearly all actions by individuals create risk, always for themselves, and often for others.  The cost of reducing risk usually goes up as we try to eliminate it.
  3. The question we all consider, subconsciously if not consciously, is whether the benefit (reward) of any action we take outweighs the risks.
  4. Different people will make different judgements about the risks they take.
  5. With few exceptions, we should let people make their own judgements, while striving to give them good information to assess their risks.
  6. The judgements that people make will change over time based on: a) their own evaluation of past actions (was the benefit worth the risk?); b) changing life circumstances that affect both risk and reward; and c) more information about the risks.
  7. An important part of the information people need is how the risks they take increase risks for *others*.
  8. Most but not all people will constrain their own actions when they know those actions  put other people at undue risk. 
  9. The definition of “undue” will be different for everyone, because everyone makes their own judgments.
  10. Sometimes people put others at undue risk because they don’t have adequate information.
  11. Sometimes people put others at undue risk because they don’t care much about other people - they discount others’ risks and benefits.
  12. The less polarized a society is, the more empathy people will have for each other, and the less they will discount risks to other people.
  13. Part of the job of government is to decide when we need society-wide rules to protect individuals from harming others or putting others at undue risk.
  14. This is a tough and messy process.  Since judgements differ, rarely will everyone be happy with any society-wide rules imposed.  
  15. This is the nature of democracy. Yet, for all its flaws, the outcomes determined this way will as a general matter be better than those determined by either a) total libertarianism, or b) authoritarianism.