A Brief History of Risk
DAVID A. MOSS
Portions reprinted by permission of the publisher from When All
Else Fails: Government as the Ultimate Risk Manager by David A.
Moss, pp. 2–9, 292–295, 305, 319–321, 323–325, Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2002
by David A. Moss.
Risk management has never been an entirely private affair in the United States. Public officials have frequently intervened to reduce some types of risk outright and to reallocate numerous others. These interventions have ranged from the enactment of limited liability laws in the early nineteenth century to the massive federal financial rescues that were undertaken in the early twenty-first.
In the wake of these most recent interventions, public risk management has achieved a new prominence in national policy discussions. From financial bailouts to extensions of unemployment insurance to the enactment and implementation of universal health care, government’s role in managing risk has loomed large. How these debates have played out—and how they continue to play out—will undoubtedly have major implications for American workers and families and for the nation’s economy going forward. Yet, equally certain, these future consequences will be rooted in our past: in the long history of public risk management in the United States and, no less important, in our understanding of that history. The purpose of this chapter is to inform that understanding.
Risk management constitutes one of the fundamental ways in which government policymakers solve problems. Writing more than 2000 years ago, Cicero posited that the primary purpose of the state was to reduce risk by securing