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What is Wildavsky’s position on safety according to his book Wildavsky, A. (1988): Searching for safety?

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  1. Introduction
  2. Principles, method and content of Wildavsky's thesis
    1. Three main principles: the guidelines of the thesis
    2. A particular method: the rational choice strengthened with empirical data
    3. Main points of the thesis
  3. An essay to criticize Wildavsky's thesis in the perspective of recent events
    1. A rational approach to safety, but are actors rational when facing a threat?
    2. Are anticipation and resilience as separated as they seem to be?
    3. Is Wildavsky approach towards safety applicable in democratic and individualist societies?
  4. Conclusion

Is taking risks always a harmful decision? Aaron Wildavsky, in his book Searching for Safety, clearly answers negatively. This response is original among politicians and scientists contending that societies must not take risks anymore, in particular regarding new technologies, in order to avoid harm and catastrophes. Aaron Wildawsky (1930-1993) was a American teacher of political science, notably in the California University of Berkeley. His favorite fields were public policy, risk management, and government budgeting. He was very prolific and wrote approximatively fourty books about these themes. His most influential works are Politics of the Budgetary Process (1964) and Searching for Safety.

The latter was written in 1988, in the context of a feeling that new dangers were arising. The Chernobyl catastrophe of 1986 posed the question of how to cope with nuclear plants and to increase their safety. Meanwhile, public opinions were becoming more aware of ecological problems. Thus, the precautionary principle was developed as a major principle of policy making. For instance, one can read in the declaration of the Wingspread Conference held in 1988, the same year that Searching for Safety was issued: ?When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.?

Even today, the precautionary principle that can be linked to the ?trial without error? strategy that Aaron Wildavsky had opposesed is discussed but applicated by governments. For example, after the Fukushima-Daïchi nuclear catastrophe, the German government enforced a decision to interrupt the plan to postpone the shutdown of several nuclear plants until it received the certainty that they are not dangerous.

[...] The author speaks of ?self-multiplicative knowledge? The use of the externality concept is essential for Wildavsky's thesis because it allows him to balance the negative or positive externalities that a safety policy can have on society, e.g. on health or economic growth. Nevetheless, one must notice that if Wildavsky uses the rational choice theory, he's critical of some microeconomics concepts like the Pareto optimum which is not relevant in safety policy. Indeed, the Pareto optimum, which states that you stop acting when it is probable that you need to make one's situation worse to make another one's better, assumes that you can separate actions that entail positive output to the ones that entail negative output, which is contrary to the axiom of Connectedness. [...]


[...] We can see here that the author's past and extensive experience of budget policy is used in a new way : A decision maker must never forget that his policy has an impact on global resources. Besides, we must adopt a decentralized view on safety management. A central management of risks prevents from treating the information the better way, because it is often slow to answer and it requires too much simplification to travel from the low risk observation level to the high decision level. [...]


[...] In the case of Searching for safety, utility is generally related to health, or indirectly related to health when related to wealth, because wealth statistically increases health. The author also renews the concept of opportunity costs, broadening it with the concept of opportunity benefits. The opportunity costs of a decision represent the benefits that taking an other decision would have bring. On the contrary, the opportunity benefits are the benefits that a decision which is not taken could have bring. [...]

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