Look Out! It’s Marshmallow Man!

Risk is something ordinary people are starting to talk about. Cassandra Wilkinson has done her bit, linking  softfall playgrounds (read: risk aversion) with broken adults and declining entrepreneurship. Matt Ridley has been talking sense on risk for years.

Risk is something we do badly in the developed world. Particularly since post-war politicians got their hands on enough money to buy votes with promises of choice without consequence, benefits without cost, and life without risk.

The ever-swelling bureaucracy hasn’t helped: if there is one defining element of both bureaucratic systems and personalities, it is risk aversion.

This misrepresentation of risk by our political class has led to a cultural blindspot, and to the absurdity of the ‘precautionary principle’ in public policy.

It’s no surprise this ‘principle’ originated on the Green-Left, because its combination of irrationality and propaganda value fits perfectly. What is sad is that vote-buyers on the Centre-Right have either let it pass, or embraced it for their own purposes.

Let’s look at the ‘principle’: I identify an activity I don’t like. I identify a possible adverse outcome, and state that it is possibly catastrophic. I make no judgement of the likelihood of this catastrophic outcome. I make no calculation of the balance of risk and benefit. I insist we must ensure this possible catastrophic outcome cannot happen – at any cost – all in the name of sensible precaution.

Well, here is my demand based on the precautionary principle:

It is undeniably possible that when we walk outside we will  all be squashed by a giant marshmallow man falling from the sky. It is undeniable that this outcome would be catastrophic. So catastrophic that the government must act to protect us, because the possible impact of not doing so is so large.

Note that the necessity of acting is presented independently of the relative risk of the event, or the cost of doing so, even though the cost is (literally) astronomical. Note that the possibility of only a tiny marshmallow man falling from the sky is overlooked. Note that there is no mention of the possible benefits of planning for the falling man and harvesting his marshmallow to feed the world for the next 50 years.

These sorts of additional considerations are what separates adult policy from adolescent propaganda.

The precautionary principle is actually two things. Firstly, it is an incoherent scream from people who want the world to be certain and safe, black and white. More importantly, it’s a political tool for those willing to play on that need by making unjustified alarmist claims for the sake of another agenda.

And it is all based on our unwillingness – or inability – to understand and embrace risk and the benefits that risk brings.


  1. Darryl Price

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