Ulrich Beck v Mitt Romney: makers and takers in the Risk Society

Mitt Romney got in trouble by identifying 47% of the population as “takers,” on the basis that they do not pay federal income tax but they receive some kind of government support. Although his formulation of that idea was unpopular, I think it’s quite common to understand the relationship between individuals and society in such a transactional way. It is all about the flow of material resources; one either gives or gets more from the state. It is then natural to see many people as net beneficiaries of the government and to worry about growing “dependency”–if not in the immediate present, then once the Baby Boomers have retired and are drawing federal retirement assistance without paying current taxes.

But that view seems wildly wrong. The problem is not growing dependency but growing exposure to all kinds of risk. People stand increasingly alone in the face of various threats. To understand how that can be, one needs a theory of risk (“bads”) to complement a theory of money and other “goods.” This is where the very influential German sociologist Ulrich Beck is directly relevant.

According to Beck, before and during the industrial revolution, the basic problem was meeting human material needs. Progress meant harnessing nature to produce what people needed, distributing the products fairly (e.g., through taxes and welfare), and not degrading the workers who produced the goods. But production and the control of nature also generated risks–pollution, accidents, surfeits (like obesity), unemployment, and tools that could be turned into weapons. As our productive capacity met and then exceeded our material needs, the problem of scarcity diminished but the problem of manufactured risk grew. The risks became worse–nuclear annihilation, global warming–and the ways that they were distributed became more complex and problematic.

Beck acknowledges that life has always been risky, but he argues that the present is different:

Anyone who set out to discover new countries and continents–like Columbus–certainly accepted ‘risks.’ But these were personal risks, not global dangers like those that arise for all humanity from nuclear fission or the storage of radioactive waste. In that earlier period, the word ‘risk’ had a note of bravery and adventure, not the threat of self-destruction of all life on Earth (Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Sage, 1992 p. 21).

Beck’s invocation of Columbus raises a serious issue. After all, Columbus’ arrival in the New World led to mass slaughter, slavery, disease, and environmental destruction–not for him but for the people who already lived there. The Amerindian population faced plague, cholera, malaria, smallpox, typhoid, relocation to reducciones, enslavement or forced labor, and the auto-da-fe if they didn’t convert. It is not clear to me that the scale of risk is worse today, nor that the risks brought by smallpox or cultural imperialism involved bravery.

But Beck makes good points about the changing nature of risk and its rising importance relative to dearths:

  • Risks in the middle ages or the 19th century “assaulted the nose or the eyes and were thus perceptible to the senses, while the risks of civilization today typically escape perception and are localized in the sphere of physical and chemical formulas (e.g., toxins in the foodstuffs or the nuclear threat)” (p. 21).
  • “In the past, the hazards could be traced to an undersupply of hygenic technology. Today they have their basis in industrial overproduction.” The major risks today are caused by modernization, not by nature or human nature.
  • Risks are distributed unequally, but it is not always the case that the people who have the least goods or power suffer the most risk. “Risk positions are not class positions” (p. 39). The links between inequality of wealth and inequality of risk are complex, not direct and straightforward. And risk has a different logic from property. For one thing, it can be “contagious” (p. 44). Risks assigned to the poor can spread to the rich.
  • Because of the shift to imperceptible risks, the control of knowledge (especially science and technology), is increasingly important, and the control of material resources is becoming less so.

Science is both powerful and problematic. One problem is the appearance of simple objectivity. “Statements on hazards are never reducible to mere statements of fact. As part of their constitution, they contain both a theoretical and a normative component. The findings ‘significant concentrations of lead in children’ or ‘pesticide substances in mothers’ milk’ as such are no more risk positions of civilization than the nitrate concentration in the rivers or the sulfur dioxide content of the air. A causal interpretation must be added …” (p. 27). Whoever decides on the causal interpretation has power.

Because harms can be traced to causes that, in turn, have other causes, we tend to think of “systems” (economies, governments) as the sources of risk. But that way of thinking suppresses responsibility and agency. “Corresponding to the highly differentiated division of labor, there is general complicity, and the complicity is matched by a general lack of responsibility. Everyone is cause and effect, and thus non-cause. The causes dribble away into a general amalgam of agents and conditions, reactions and counter-reactions, which brings social certainty and popularity to the concept of system.”

Indeed, when we attribute causality to something we call a “system”:

one can do something and continue doing it without having to take personal responsibility for it. It is as if one were acting while being personally absent. One acts physically, without acting morally or politically. The generalized other–the system–acts within and through oneself: this is the slave morality of civilization, in which people act personally and socially as if they were subject to a natural fate, the ‘law of gravitation’ of the system. (p. 33)

To come back to Mitt Romney: we may indeed have a problem of irresponsibility, and it does involve blaming “society” for problems that should be attributed to individuals. But irresponsibility doesn’t play out as Romney implied. People are not taking excessive material resources from the state. In fact, the reason that something like 47% of Americans don’t pay federal taxes is that federal taxes have been cut–along with spending. The “takers” are getting very small amounts of support compared to people in other countries and in our own past, and the government provides relatively weak insurance, oversight, and prevention. All this is seen as a natural outgrowth of the laws of markets and technology, not anyone’s fault. The problem of irresponsibility involves the allocation of risk. We are endangering others, both living and not yet born. There are vast inequalities in who creates and suffers risks, although those disparities don’t map neatly onto traditional class distinctions. Overall, people are fearful, and increasingly we face our fears alone.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.