10 January 2023

A pandemic of risk aversion is killing progress

By Martin Cullip

One of the many unfortunate side effects of Covid is that society that has become increasingly, and irrationally, risk averse. Our institutions seem hell-bent on insisting that everyone be swaddled in cotton-wool – yet almost everything we take for granted today at one point involved taking significant risks. Even seatbelts faced a controversial battle before it was acknowledged that they keep us all safer. The greater danger, then, is that fear prevents us embracing technological advancements that could make all our lives better.

Already police commissioners are calling for ludicrous bans on e-scooters, despite the fact that they are better for the environment and could play a vital role in getting more cars off the roads. And despite the huge possibilities GM crops could have for the environment, food poverty, and the potential for fracking to radically improve our energy security, we smother advancements with senseless regulations.

Yet, at the same time, we take countless risks as part of our day-to-day lives, from getting in a car, to crossing the road – all of them contain inherent risks that we are comfortable with. In the same way, we accept that people are may suffer from preventable illness and injuries from travelling abroad or playing sport, yet, we agree it is not in the interest of public safety to ban these activities.

But Covid has turned this on its head. We threw our rational sense of risk and reward out the window in pursuit of safety from the unknown – something we will never achieve. Despite all the evidence pointing to the fact that young people were much more likely to suffer as a result of lockdowns than from the virus, they were still subject to draconian measures.

Crucially, this risk averse attitude did not cease when lockdown were lifted. Studies have shown that even after lockdown, over 50% of people said they were more inclined to spend time at home. This kind of reckless caution has proliferated ever since, exerting a chokehold on societal decision-making and ushering in an often self-imposed nanny state mentality. 

The inclination to avoid risk means that we often ignore evidence on the contrary. We are more likely to dismiss thoroughly researched, scientific evidence if its conclusions lead us down a risky or unknown path. This is an incredibly dangerous tendency.

Take vaping, for example. Despite Public Health England saying for years that vaping is 95% safer than cigarettes, there is still a reluctance to accept this and embrace new safer technology. The media is still full of scaremongering headlines surrounding the ‘unknown future risks’ of vaping, often in direct contradiction to scientific research. Indeed, despite a wealth of scientific research finding vaping to be far safer than smoking, a third of the public incorrectly believe it to be more or equally as harmful – and that figure has been rising rather than falling. A balanced, rational decision would see new technologies such as smoking alternatives as fantastic opportunities to move towards a true smoke-free generation, but an irrational approach to risk prevents this. 

This is being echoed across the board – from over-regulating the online space in the name of creating a safer internet, to car-free cities – our society will stop at nothing in its pursuit of a bubble-wrapped world.

We are stifling innovation and, more importantly, progress by pigeon-holing ourselves in this way. If we want to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, from climate change to health inequalities, the answer should always be to challenge the status quo and take risks.

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Martin Cullip is the International Fellow at The Taxpayers Protection Alliance's Consumer Center.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.