Human Flourishing Requires Risk

In Search of a Healthier Balance Between Safety and Risk

Bring Back Risk,” a recent headline at City Journal said, and immediately I was reminded of a truly lousy play date my kids once had. I’d met this mother who told me that her ten-year-old son didn’t have many friends, so I invited her to bring him over to play with my kids.

It didn’t go well. The boy was fine, but his mother—well, here’s what happened:

My kids: Do you want to play chase?

Boy: Sure!

His mother: No, don’t run, it isn’t safe—you might trip and get hurt.

My kids: Do you want to play on the fort?

Boy: Sure!

His mother: No, that wouldn’t be safe. What if you fell off?

My kids: Do you want to play hide-and-seek?

Boy: Sure!

His mother: No, stay where I can see you. I need to make sure you’re safe.

My kids didn’t even bother to ask whether he wanted to explore the strip of woods behind our house, climb trees, or ride bikes in the cul-de-sac. It was a dud of a play date, and as they all sat inside on the carpet playing board games, that little boy grew more and more sullen.

I don’t know what became of him. I hope he eventually managed to extricate himself in a non-self-destructive way from the Nanny State of his mother’s care, that he somehow knew—despite her lessons to the contrary—that he was tough, capable, resilient, and trustworthy.

Society and Risk

There’s not the slightest doubt that overprotectiveness harms children. It also harms adults, as anyone with a well-meaning but controlling partner will tell you. And it harms the collection of people we call society.

In “Bring Back Risk,” Allison Schrager (author of An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Places to Understand Risk) details some of the problems caused by a risk-averse culture. She takes particular aim at government regulations:

Between 1970 and 2019, the page count of the federal code of regulations on business and industry thickened from 54,000 to more than 185,000. State and local regulations can be even more of an economic burden, especially for small businesses. The number of jobs that required a license, for instance, rose from 5 percent in the 1950s to 22 percent today. Small wonder that the rate of new business creation fell 10 percent between the 1980s and 2018.

“Entrepreneurship and openness to new opportunities once fueled America’s economic dynamism,” she says, “but now the government is becoming our risk inhibitor, a collective helicopter parent.”

Yes, many of our laws and regulations are well-intended. Like the mother who didn’t want her son to get hurt, they try to cushion us from possible negative outcomes. But such overprotectiveness carries unintended consequences.

“The government push to reduce risk can sometimes make us more vulnerable, not less. Misfortune cannot be eliminated, and we can find ourselves less hardy in the face of the bad things that still happen,” Schrager says. “This threatens not only our resilience, but also, over time, our prosperity. Risk is critical for a flourishing society and vibrant economy.”

Let that sink in. “Risk is critical for a flourishing society and vibrant economy.”

Why? Because there will always be new challenges that we as a society have to face. And new challenges require new solutions. In other words, they require us to risk—to be creative and try things that haven’t been tried before.

Risk as Problem-Solving

Entrepreneurs do this. They see a problem or a need. Then they risk their money, their reputations, and their time to try to solve that problem or meet that need. Most fail multiple times before they succeed. And that’s okay—as billionaire Jeff Sandefer, who mentors entrepreneurs, says, “I encourage students to fail early, often, and as cheaply as possible.”

To see this play out in the lives of a failing dairy farmer, a banker, and a refugee from China, watch the Acton Institute documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur (trailer here). Our nation needs problem-solvers like these. Their successes are good for all of us.

You might recognize the name of the entrepreneur from China in that documentary—Jimmy Lai—because he’s been in the news recently for standing up to Communism and getting sentenced to prison for it. Being willing to take risks in one area carries over into others. Safety is not Lai's top priority; nor should it be ours. Being willing to take risks—physical, spiritual, and monetary—is a biblical principle.

Stifling Human Nature

Yet too many well-meaning parents stifle their children’s sense of themselves as people who can take risks, stand up for what’s right, be entrepreneurs—or be anything, really, other than passive recipients of someone else’s expertise or wealth.

And too many governments stifle the creativity and problem-solving ability of people who’d like to be entrepreneurs. What happens, then, is that deep-pocketed companies or well-connected lobbying groups step in, because they can afford to pay the fees, absorb the fines, and hire the lawyers. The little guy—the small business owner or the person dreaming of starting a small business—is left thwarted, sitting on the carpet playing board games.

This is terribly bad for human flourishing. First, it eliminates competition and with it many of the best solutions. Second, it runs counter to human nature. We’re made in the image of a creative, capable God; we don’t want to just sit there. That’s why one of the most persistent cries of any toddler is, “I do it myself!”

The thing is, it’s not all the government’s fault. It’s yours and mine as well. Regulations get put in place because we want to be protected from everything that could possibly go wrong. So ask yourself: What policies do you support because they reduce your immediate risk, while carrying the unintended consequence of squeezing out potential problem-solvers?

Or put another way: What risk would you be willing to accept in order to preserve someone’s freedom to solve problems? For specific examples, you might want to read outside-the-box farming entrepreneur Joel Salatin’s contemporary classic Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal.

Risk is not a bad word. Neither is safety. We need a healthy balance between the two. Finding that balance requires careful thought, to be sure. But it also requires that old-fashioned virtue, courage.

Further Reading:

  • The Art of Manliness series on the causes and consequences of overprotective parenting.

And if you’re especially interested in courageous entrepreneurship, consider attending The Gilder Fellows Virtual Seminar (sponsored by the Discovery Institute) in August.

PhD, is an editor for the Discovery Institute and the author of four dystopian novels and many shorter works, both fiction and non-fiction. Before turning to editing, she taught as an adjunct English and humanities professor. She and her husband homeschooled their three children.

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