The Dangerous Business of Being Alive – Risks, Citizens and the Liberal State

The Dangerous Business of Being Alive- Risks, Citizens and the Liberal State 

‘The greatest risk in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing’ Norman Vincent Peale 

Welcome to the latest entry in my attempt to set out some principles for a liberal state, as a series of building blocks for new ideas for liberalism. This time I want to talk about risks, and citizens and the role of the state in a liberal society.

In an earlier post, I tried to set out what I see as the principles underpinning a fair and equal liberal society. In addition to making the case for freedom and equality (principles 1 and 3) I specifically suggested a role, an obligation for the state around managing risks for its citizens:

Principle 8- Society and its government must ensure a fair and effective management of social risks so that risks imposed by society on its citizens, arising from social-technological risks, or failure to act on foreseeable collective risks, are managed and that effective protection systems are in place.

It is this principle and this area of risk and obligations that I want to expand on now.


What Is Risk and What Types of Risk Are There?

The literature on risk is enormous and I have no intention of rehearsing it all here. In general , a risk is an event or choice that has yet to happen but which may happen and has a rough calculus of measurement based on probability times impact. So one risk can be low because although very likely, its impacts are modest. Another risk can be high, because even though its probability is lower, the outcome or impact is extremely serious. Here one might think of the risk of a US housing market crash that was felt to be very low in 2008 but whose consequences were and still are, extremely serious.

In the corporate world, risks are framed around choices that the corporation and its management has, even where the outside environment constrains those choices. However when thinking of citizens, we can quickly see that there will be personal and societal risks that intertwine with the obligations the state owes them.

Personal risks are those that a person freely enters into, having a choice, knowing the consequences and accepting the outcome. Investments, dietary choices, betting, career choices might be examples. Other risks that a citizen faces however, are not freely entered into- an obvious one being ill-health, or a compulsory purchase order on their house by the state.

Another way to think about these two types of risks are as Ronald Dworkin discussed, ‘option bad luck’ and ‘brute bad luck’. Option bad luck corresponds to a risk through choice whereas brute bad luck is trying to capture the idea that despite your best planning as an individual, shit happens.

Yet another way to frame this two-fold typology is based on Thomas Meyer (1), ‘optional risks’ and ‘non-optional risks’ (Meyer p28). Again, optional risks are ones the citizen decides to take to improve their life position, freely entered into and with the acceptance of gains or losses. Non-optional risks are those that happen anyway without the element of individual choice, based perhaps on their physical impediments, societal impositions, ‘acts of god’ or other risks outside their control (including as I will discuss- state choices).

For the moment, I want to focus on risks between the individual, the society they live in, and the role of the state. Clearly, these intra-state risks are not the only type of risks, and risks exist both between states, and between and across generations (sustainability generally and climate change in particular being the obvious examples). But to make things easier, I want to focus on a single state and the relation to its citizens and the obligations the state has.


Ok, What’s Your Point Caller 


My point is quite a simple one. If we believe in a society where all persons are equal, where we need to ensure they have opportunities to follow their life plans, and where some choices and risks are outwith their control, then we immediately create a role for the state to intervene to manage some of those risks. Another way to look at this is in terms of the difference between having theoretical rights and opportunities, and actual ability to follow through to pursuing them.

Let’s now go back to the quote at the state of this post:

‘The greatest risk in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing’ Norman Vincent Peale

Such a quote and hundreds more like it, can be found across the literature of positive thinking and urging people on. However I’ve always thought that the thinking behind such suggestions neglects the element of circumstance, of brute bad luck, of ‘shit happens’. Yes with enough luck, willpower and gumption, some people can overcome any adverse circumstances. But what if you come from a  chaotic family? Or through sheer bad luck lose most of your life savings? Or are dogged with poor health, or born with a disability? Or are a victim of shoddy workmanship or downright business deceit? What if sweeping technological change wipes out the industry you work in, or decimates your local community? Are we really to fall back on exhortation?

No, it seems clear that for some risks, the non-optional risks, the state has an obligation to step in and help its citizens. This idea has been accept for a long time, but is particularly relevant in a new age needed for liberalism, a liberalism ‘5.0’.

Let’s be clear what we’re saying: the state has an obligation to act when its citizens face risks that are outwith their reasonable control, where the state itself through collective societal choice made one choice, amongst a range of choices, and that choice had consequences. The state and its citizens collectively has a duty to consider the consequences of its actions or failure to act, and to ensure that suitable systems and support programmes are in place to compensate and support those citizens affected by such choices. And we are talking very broadly- not just the choice to pursue policy A or law B, but the very decision to use a model of capitalism, to allow for private property, to accept certain features of the basic structure of society. Individual citizens facing bad outcomes, non-optional risks, are unlikely to have had the choice to accept some or all of these ‘macro’ choices, and hence are owed a duty to be looked after and supported.

A useful way to consider some of this is to consider Dworkin’s famous ‘insurance market’ (2)


Another Way Of Looking at Risk

Here is a (mercifully briefer) way to look at risks, drawn substantially from Meyer (p29)(1)

  • risks arising from private choices
  • risks including political options (socio-structural)- the state makes decisions (presumably) calculated to promote the common interest by authorising certain economic, social or foreign policies
  • Social-Technological risks-arising from the combined public and private choices about technologies that are made, often in the absence of a proper assessment of their impact on individuals or society (and something Tony Atkinson wished to see addressed)
  • Socio-cultural risks- where no positive actual choice is made, but governments and the state are effectively negligent, failing to take action in the face of foreseeable consequences of government inaction (examples might include unemployment, lack of preparation for automation, systematic discrimination of women or minorities etc.)


Sorry, I’m Still Not Convinced The State Has A Duty or Even a Role

You may be thinking by this point, if you made it this far, ok I can see a role for the state in providing management of risks, but either this is just a minimal level of protection to provide a basic standard of living, or an option to do so- its not a duty.

Sorry- I don’t agree. If you accepted my earlier principles for a liberal society, then it flows pretty clearly from the commitment to treat citizens equally, to respect their need for positive as well as negative liberty, and their right to follow their own life plan with dignity and the ability to see it through, that the state has a duty to act.

Why? Well firstly because if we accept citizens are equal and have rights, then when the state fails to act on the various risks listed above, it is encroaching on its citizens rights.

A second way to think about this is in terms of a social contract. We can imagine a hypothetical contract where, in return for accepting my responsibilities as a citizen and all that flows from that, I have the right to expect to be insured against the worst risks in life, since my social contract prevents me acting outwith the rules and norms of the society I am in. For example, if I am poor and hungry, I am not allowed (theoretically) to steal from the richer and better endowed and I cannot simply take over private land and begin to grow my own food. So, in return, I am owed some level of protection/insurance in return…

One final way to consider the issue is this- it seems clear that no one is morally entitled to take risks that affect third parties, unless the latter have given their express consent. But in managing the social-structural, socio-technical and socio-cultural risks mentioned above, states do this to their citizens all the time. But it is NOT valid to simply sacrifice the few for the good of the many- this would violate any number of clear liberal principles. So, as soon as it is clear that risks are being imposed, it is equally clear that rights for protection/compensation are activated.

So, the citizen has the right to expect protection, and the state has the duty to provide it.

But what does any of these mean in practice?


Types of Collective Risks and Consequences

In very general terms, one might re-cast my 5 ages of liberalism to match the types of risks we are discussing:

Age 1- managing risks arising from lack of religious freedom, arbitrary state or monarchical power and lack of property rights

Age 2- managing risks arising from the growth of capitalism, of pollution and sustainability risks, and lack of political representation

Age 3- managing the social consequences of increasingly collective societal decisions imposed on individuals

Age 4- managing risks associated with life circumstances, industrialisation and post-industrialisation

Age 5- Facing up to today’s risks- immigration, gender inequality, minority rights, accelerated technological change, global environmental degradation, and a realisation that risks exist that flow from the very nature of capitalism and the basic structure of society itself.

So, we are searching for things that the state owes an obligation to its citizens to address, across the full range of socio-structural, socio-technological and socio-cultural risks discussed above.

We are searching for things where the state has made decisions between options, and those decisions have consequences for individuals. We are looking for decisions and risks that violate basic rights, and where something can be done about that. We are excluding on the whole individual decisions where a choice was made and it didn’t work out. We are particularly looking for those risks that, absent substantial wealth and resources, it is difficult for an individual to foresee, to manage via self-help alone, and where reasonable efforts are  or have been already made by the citizen to address the risk.


Practical Examples Please!

In one sense, none of the above is new- states have long accepted the need to provide some form of safety net for their citizens. Since 1945 in the UK, a complex and interlocking set of public services have been established to try and provide social protection and social insurance for citizens.

So, some obvious areas where the state has a duty to manage risk are: providing a fair, effective and comprehensive health service. Providing a decent, free and effective education for all, allowing them to take a full part in society. Providing for people in their old age via pensions, and providing a series of protections and wealth transfers for those affected by unemployment, disability, sickness, and so on- the welfare system.

In addition, a whole range of public regulation exists to protect citizens from the inimical consequences of bad products, lying businesspeople, chicanery, shoddy workmanship, and bad advice. Think of the entire systems of legal protection and regulation that now exist in the UK around environmental protection and environmental health, health and safety at work, public health protection and disease prevention, consumer protection and product rules.

But are these enough? I’d suggest very strongly not, and as we enter the fifth age of liberalism, we need to think again about the duties- NOT the political options- that the state owes us.


New Risks, New State Obligations


I want to finish on a few examples of areas where I feel, going forward, a real liberal state would offer much more than is traditionally accepted as subject to risk management. That’s not to say by not tackling them here, I am agreeing that the UK has a fully effective set of risk management for health, education, welfare and so on. But let me highlight some others:


  • Legal Redress, Protection From Libel and Slander

To play a full part in society, it should be obvious in a capital-led, internet savvy, information rich society, that all citizens need adequate ability to pursue redress for illegal action against them, including slander and libel. At the moment, we seem to be cutting back on provision or relying on private insurance often attached to housing insurance or car insurance. But if we really respected our citizens, we’d be seeing this access to legal resource as a right, not a nice (or depending on your politics, nasty!) thing to have

  • Information Security and Identity Protection

In the modern world, your information can come to define you- and your identity can be stolen. At the moment, the state is too often ignoring these foreseeable risks, too often creating risks itself with casual mismanagement of information, or too grasping of information for worthy but overstated ends. Too often, major private companies like Facebook or Google are left to define what is ok, when the state should be picking up the baton, identifying and managing the risks proactively on behalf of its citizens

  • Full employment and Technological Risks

Too often, full employment is see as a thing that governments hope to achieve, based on political choice and/or philosophy. I mean, we might want it but we can’t buck the market right?

I want to suggest that this is a clear socio-structural risk that all political parties should be striving for, as an accepted duty of government. It was in the past, it should be again. Why? Because economical and social evidence and human psychology and dignity demands it- that all citizens have the opportunity to work and to work in ways that give them creativity, agency and purpose. Related to that, a whole swathe of articles on automation and the rise of the robots (something I’ll come back to) point to an overwhelming need to focus on the future and manage these emerging socio-technological risks for citizens

  • Housing and Place

We have clearly gone off-course in the UK when it comes to housing and place making. Our places are too often designed for people with cars, people with wealth, people for whom choices based on resources exist, or designed for the needs of business. Our sense of public place for democracy and civic forces to play out is just too weak. Our plan making relies on the private sector to come forward with house building and we now have a model where most of our public spending on housing subsidies private rental rather than public house building. Too many younger people face enormous obstacles to get on the housing ladder. Too many more citizens, following the signals they are given, are taking advantage of the rental market to drive up prices and rents as a way of providing for their future, in a literally beggar-thy-neighbour approach. These risks are both socio-structural (arising from a combination of open capital flows to and from the UK, tax laws, the retreat from public house building, and lack of regulation) as well as being socio-technological and socio-cultural (especially the lack of questioning as to what might happen when such choices were made, or if we continue to fail to plan for new housing). We must do better.

I don’t have time and space here, but just as important, and especially in Scotland, is our entire approach to land ownership, common land and common space.

  • Capital and Inequality

In an earlier blog, I ran through the current state of inequality in the world, and why it matters. Following Piketty and others, these socio-structural and socio-cultural risks were, and are, entirely clear and foreseeable. The enormous levels of inequality are bad, foreseeable and preventable, and are a classic example of citizens on their own being unable to either fully foresee the impacts, or fully address them given the macro-economic and financial forces ranged against them. The case for government action, preventative and proactive, to address inequality, could not be clearer.




As usual, I’ve gone on longer than planned during these early foundational pieces. I hope I have convinced you that, based on liberal principles, there is a right for citizens and a duty on states, for risks to be managed. I’ve talked about those risks and their nature, and why they are to be managed.

I’ve finished by hinting at the areas where, going forward, we need more focus on these risks, not as a nice to have, but as a fundamental component of a liberal, fair and effective society. In future, I’ll return to the individual areas and flesh out the details.

But let me finish with a comment to the sceptical. Almost all triumphs of private business turn out to be underpinned by previous public action (on research, on education, on capital or infrastructure support, on limited liability, on tax rules, or the rule of law). Almost all rich people have a tendency to forget what absence of resources looks and feel like, and why being stuck in the system is so hard. Almost all trapped within a system of low resources, bad services and loss of control can sense the system is not geared to support them. Unless we address these risks, proactively and systematically, we will never have the fair and equal society that we want.



(1) Thomas Meyer ‘The Theory of Social Democracy’ Polity ISBN 978-0-7456-4113-3

(2)Ronald Dworkin ‘Sovereign Virtue’ Harvard University Press ISBN 978-0674-008106

Author: DaveGorman

An Englishman longtime in Scotland, interested in new ideas for liberalism that recognise our challenges in the 21st century. Loves clouds, ideas, environment and applying liberal thinking to make things better. Speaking in a personal capacity of course.

2 thoughts on “The Dangerous Business of Being Alive – Risks, Citizens and the Liberal State”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *