Seeing, Bearing, and Sharing Risk:
Social Policy Challenges for Our Time
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “As soon as there is life, there is danger.”1 Throughout human history, conditions of risk have accompanied each human life. As the chapters of this book document, however, allocations of responsibilities for dealing with those risks have shifted over time across individuals, families, groups, and governments—though recent shifts within the United States fail to engage public participation or debate. Indeed, the dominant rhetorical framework obscures the real choices and stakes by using crude alternatives of private markets and collective responsibility, with inadequate attention to the details that determine incentives and reallocations. There is thus important intellectual and political work to be done in articulating government and collective roles in preventing risks, in assigning where risks fall, and in nudging private behaviors to prevent and to manage risks. Yet the very omissions and gaps in these areas hint at the deeper problem: securing sufficient political will to address and respond to the social shift of economic risks to individuals requires overcoming the psychological, cognitive, analytic, and ideological barriers to seeing and caring about the risk assignment.
The severity of recent economic crises may help alert and mobilize people to attend to the issues of risk, but the problems are deeper, longer term, and more systemic than the bursting of the housing bubble and the governmental failure to regulate opaque and risky financial instruments. Academics, journalists, and public leaders can increase public conversations about the incidence and distribution of economic risk—and in so doing, can reshape public understandings to cultivate a sense of mutual duty rather than merely self-reliance.
While dangers to human health, welfare, and well-being are natural and inevitable, how risks are exacerbated or mitigated, and how the costs of risks are incurred, are anything but. There have been many shifts in the allocation of