The Norm Chronicles

[Amazon Link]

Thought experiment:

Scenario A: Suppose your neighbor is manufacturing anthrax spores in his basement. There's no indication of evil intent, it seems to be just a hobby. He claims he's taking reasonable precautions. But you're uncertain: an accident or a robbery involving those spores could kill you or your loved ones. Is it a proper function of government to confiscate his spores?

Scenario B: Suppose your neighbor has a gun. There's no indication of evil intent, it seems to be just a hobby. He claims he's taking reasonable precautions. But you're uncertain: an accident or a robbery involving that gun could kill you or your loved ones. Is it a proper function of government to confiscate his weapon?

My guess is: most people, even most libertarians, would find government intervention OK in Scenario A, not in Scenario B.

But what's the difference? Could it simply be the perceived/actual level of risk involved? Is there some principled way to quantify that, to justify government actions that mitigate extreme Scenario-A levels of risk, while somehow stopping short of a totalitarian nanny state that disallows any Scenario B-style activity that might conceivably put innocent parties at risk, but probably won't?

I don't know. And (as a dilettante in libertarian political philosophy) I've been thinking about this sort of thing for a number of years without coming to a satisfactory conclusion. It all seems to revolve around the concept of risk, though.

One of my efforts at self-education was to pick up this book: The Norm Chronicles by Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter. Its subtitle: Stories and Numbers About Danger and Death. Seemingly very relevant to my lackadaisical intellectual quest!

Blastland and Spiegelhalter illustrate their story using fictional typical characters: there's the risk-averse Prudence; the thrill-and-pleasure-seeking, risk-be-damned Kevlin brothers (Kelvin, Kevin, and Kieran); and then there is Norm, who is completely (guess what) normal, all the way down to his weight and height, and seeks moderation in all things risky. (At one self-reflective point, he marvels at how paradoxically unusual his normality makes him.)

The book is a romp through the major categories of Things That Could Possibly Do You In: getting born, of course, but also giving birth; sex; crime; transportation; drugs, licit and illicit; your lifestyle; medical woes; etc. Wherever possible, the authors quantify: risky activities are measured in "micromorts", a one-in-a-million chance of death. (For example: serving in Afghanistan exposes one to a risk of 22 micromorts per day; World War II RAF bomber pilots experienced 25,000 micromorts per mission.) Chronic risks are measured in "microlives", about a half-hour in length. (Examples: each cigarette smoked will set you back about 0.5 microlives; being male instead of female will cut off about 4 microlives per day.)

And there are the big risks: climate change, earthquakes, and stuff falling from above (meteors, killer asteroids, unfortunate stowaways in airplane wheelwells …)

All these morbid facts and numbers are presented with enough wit and charm to make them (paradoxically) lively and interesting. Norm, Prudence, and the Kevlins become actually sympathetic characters in the narrative.

And it's funny. Try reading this without amusement:

[…] We know for sure that countless things—unlikely or not—will happen somewhere to someone, as they must. More than that, we know that they will often happen in strange and predictable patterns. Fatal falls from ladders among the approximately 21 million men in England and Wales in the five years to 2010 were uncannily consistent, numbering 42, 54, 56, 53, and 47. For all the chance particulars that apply to any individual among 21 million individuals, the numbers are amazingly, fiendishly stable—unlike the ladders. Some calculating God, painting fate by numbers up in the clouds, orders another splash of red: "Hey, you in the dungarees, we're short this month."

So: a fine book, wonderfully entertaining, and I learned a lot.

But did I get any illumination on the topic that drove me here, seeking some sort of objective, principled guidance on the proper regulation of risk in a free society?

No. If anything, the opposite. The authors just about convinced me that there is no bright line that can be drawn between risks that must be prohibited and risks for which laissez-faire is the proper policy. Some cases seem clear, but those in between will probably forever be a matter of unresolvable conflict between people with different values and attitudes. We could handwave about distinguishing between "rational concerns" and "irrational fears", but there's no infallible test, as near as I can tell, that will allow one to tell one from the other in all possible cases.

But I'll keep looking.


Last Modified 2014-12-08 3:31 PM EST