A Note on Risk Tolerance in the US

by Roger B. Blumberg

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article about N.G.R.I. cases, Mac McClelland wrote about how unjust and even illegal some cases of forensic detention can be. He quoted a former New York State Office of Mental Health official as saying that the question of releasing such detainees, when they appear to have recovered from their illness and are legally and medically eligible for release:

…becomes one of risk tolerance. America has become — to an extreme level that’s almost impossible to exaggerate — a risk intolerant society.” (NYTM, 10/01/17, p. 39)

At first glance, the truth of this statement seems obvious enough. When you consider the changes in everyday life since 2001, and our apparent acceptance of all sorts of personal invasions and systemic inconveniences in the name of security, you might reasonably conclude that we have a difficult time tolerating risk, regardless of how infrequent or improbable our exposure to it may be.

But on Sunday we also read the first reports of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and suddenly the claim about risk tolerance in America seemed ridiculous. Not only do we have an extremely high tolerance to risk when that risk is the result of our fellow Americans accumulating personal arsenals of all manner of weapons, but we easily tolerate the risk of having this sort of accumulation remain undetectable by local law enforcement! And unlike the forensic incarceration cases, we find extraordinary numbers of people who are willing to protest, vote, and take action to protect the right of anyone to increase this sort of communal risk.

One might reply that, well, our tolerance to risk may be inconsistent, but surely our natural sense of acceptable risk remains rational and rooted in our “personal belief systems,” somehow. Maybe, but if we consider the possibility that most Americans have a sense of tolerable risk no more or less manufactured than their sense of personal utility, then actually the attitudes to risk aren’t inconsistent at all. The advocacy efforts of the NRA over many decades, for example, have not only promoted widespread and unchecked gun ownership as a symbol of American patriotism, but have effectively discouraged the media’s longitudinal coverage of, and the government’s attention to, the risks of widespread, unchecked gun ownership. No doubt the Las Vegas shooting (like the Newtown massacre) will be a distant memory for all but the affected families in a matter of days, and this will be thanks, in no small part, to a culture that the NRA has helped to create. Meanwhile, not only do forensic detainees have nothing with the power of the NRA to advocate for their interests, but the multi-billion dollar domestic detention industry that holds them almost certainly does have such an advocacy group.

My point is that we should entertain the idea that Americans have no “natural” sense of acceptable/unacceptable risk at all (beyond extremely grave or trivial cases), and we should hesitate to appeal to such a sense to explain our peculiar behavior as a nation. In the cases I’ve described, for example, Americans seem to have exactly the tolerance to risk that the sellers of guns and incarceration facilities would prefer that we have (and are paying to encourage), and I think we’re better off (always) pointing that out. We may not be a great country anymore, by Englightenment or even our own late 20th century standards, but we remain the best consumers of ideas (as well as products) that money can buy.

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