Right of Reply

The professor of economic psychology at the University of Stockholm responds to John Adams
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The Independent Culture
THE ARTICLE by Professor Adams in The Independent's Saturday Review ("The perils of living in a risk-free world") failed to make certain crucial distinctions, and hence ended up with the wrong conclusion. Professor Adams says that "attempts to regulate voluntary risk should be abandoned - except for children." Really?

Alcohol is a good example. Do we really want alcohol to be freely available (to adults), at market prices and with no special tax imposed? In Sweden we restrict availability by the use of certain stores with limited business times, and high taxes. It is felt by most people that this is a justified policy because there is a high risk to others.

The distinction between personal risk and risk to others is absolutely crucial. Few people see a larger risk to themselves than to others; most see others at risk, but believe that they can protect themselves against it by skilful and prudent behaviour and judgment. The difference is especially large when it comes to lifestyle risks.

The notion that we weigh risks and benefits when managing our personal risks is misleading. We simply dismiss or even deny the personal risks and go ahead to indulge in our desires. That is how so many people develop addictions and no longer act rationally. We fall prey to cognitive distortions and irrational thinking and twisted reasoning, often under emotional pressure, and therefore relapse in the addictions we try to quit, over and over again. Any smoker who has tried to quit can testify to the existence of these phenomena.

The "nanny state" is the result of attempts to regulate voluntary risk- taking. People want government to regulate risks of all kinds, because they see the danger to others. Is this good or bad? It may be economically rational, since accidents are costly: it saves lives, which is a humanitarian goal; and, though it may infringe on the freedom of taking risks for oneself, the infringement can be minimised. The nanny state is here to stay and, on the whole, something to be grateful for.

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