Monday, August 15, 2005

Liberty & "Imposed" Risk

Ackerman & Heinzerling write in Priceless :
"Most people view risks imposed by others, without an individual's consent, as more troubling and more worthy of government intervention than risks that an individual knowingly accepts. On that basis, the highest priority among our three examples is to reduce drinking water contamination, a hazard to which no one has consented. The acceptance of a risky occupation such as construction is at best quasi-voluntary -- it involves somewhat more individual discretion than the 'choice' of public drinking water supplied, but many people go to work under great economic pressure, with little information about occupational hazards. In contrast, the choice of risky recreational pursuits such as skiing is entirely discretionary; obviously safer alternatives are readily available. Safety regulation is thus more urgent on construction sites than on ski slopes, despite the equality of the probability of harm. . . ." (70-71)

I think this is worth some discussion. I think I may agree that risks imposed by others is more worthy of government involvement than other types of risks. It seems correct based upon the normative view of individual liberty and the role of government as the protective state. The issue seems directly related to harm to the person or property of others. On the normative perspective of individual liberty, a person can do as they want AS LONG AS THEY DO NOT HARM THE PERSON OR PROPERTY OF ANOTHER. One question here would be whether "imposed risk" was a harm. That is, if a person or person's property is not harmed or damaged by the actions of another, e.g. driving while drunk, even though the risk of the action causing harm has increased, has there been a harm? Is it not sufficient to make harm to others illegal, and impose both compensation for damage done as well as criminal penalties? Unless the increased risks gets realized in an event that actually causes harm, then the actions that increase the odds of the harmful event do not seem to be harmful to others. Based upon the perspective of individual liberty, what seems to be the appropriate analysis?

Now there is a second question that strikes me which is related to the authors' attention to "public drinking water supplied." The specific illustration they are discussing involves arsenic in drinking water. If I understand their discussion, they are using arsenic in drinking water to represent a pollution problem that should be regulated by government to protect "the public" from harm, and I think the illustration is meant to offer a means of criticizing the economic approach to pollution which relies on the market failure of externality and which, in a sense, seeks to balance benefits and costs at the margin. But, notice that the illustration is PUBLIC drinking water supplied. In other words, the drinking water with arsenic in it is supplied by a government, and therefore, we are not talking about an externality market failure. Government owns the drinking water it is supplying (or selling) to people in the community.

On the individual liberty normative perspective, how should we view this illustration of arsenic in "public drinking water supplied?" One possibility is to consider that government may be acting in a way that harms the person or property of others. Selling drinking water with more arsenic than less may well increase the risk of health damage to people in the community. When a person is actually harmed by drinking the government supplied water, then the government could be sued for damages, and perhaps we could even hold those in government criminally responsible for the harm caused.

A second possibility would be to see the situation much as the workplace safety issue the author's discuss. Only in this case, we are talking about consumers of a product. The consumers are not forced to consume the publicly supplied drinking water. If the government does not lie about the level of arsenic in its water, the consumer accepts the risk implied by arsenic in the water. Further, we know there are many substitutes for the publicly supplied drinking water that are being supplied in a market context, and this seems to make the idea of an imposed risk in this case even less plausible. What do you think?

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