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The Privatization of Risk and the Growing Economic Insecurity of Americans
Published on: Jun 07, 2006

Jacob S. Hacker is Peter Strauss Family Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Yale University.

When Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast in September 2005, leaving death, wreckage, and grief in its wake, Americans were reminded that risk is an integral element of everyday life. Natural disasters are a magnifying glass into popular perceptions of fate and responsibility, and in the aftermath of Katrina, it became clear that most Americans—for all their faith in individualism and personal responsibility—believe that some risks should be viewed as a common problem that can only be effectively addressed through broad cooperative policies of insurance and assistance.

As Hurricane Katrina vividly suggests, risk can bring people together, creating communities of shared fate. Yet risk can also split people apart. Societies have dealt with risk in many ways, and not all of these responses involve public solutions or broad insurance protections. Personal misfortune can be blamed on improvidence and irresponsibility. It can be chalked up to the workings of mystical forces beyond human control. It can be dealt with through private market institutions or through communal frameworks, through localized government action or through the immense powers of the nation state, or through some combination of all these. And, of course, risk does not have to be “dealt with” at all. It can simply be left to individuals and families to cope with, as best they can, on their own.

There is, however, one constant: whether the result of nature or man, whether affecting pocketbooks or personal safety, risk is a social condition. We cannot have risk—the probability of outcomes, good or bad—without variety in the human experience. Risk makes some fortunate and others unfortunate—some rich and others poor, some well and others sick, some able-bodied and others disabled. And because risk creates variety, it also creates the opportunity for social institutions of risk pooling that spread the costs of these unfortunate consequences broadly across affected populations, lessening the burden borne by individuals alone.

Such institutions are by no means foreordained, much less perfectly tailored to circumstances. They are the product of market institutions and political organizations that refract—and sometimes distort—individual preferences and social demands. And ultimately these institutions emerge out of the interpretive meanings that risk-bearers give to their situations. This process of interpretation—how victims of risk see themselves and how others see them—goes a long way toward explaining why some risks are seen as common problems and others as private misfortune, or even as proper comeuppance.

The Social Science Research Council project that is showcased in this web forum is concerned with all these vital issues. Its particular subject, however, is the economic risks facing Americans in the early twenty-first century: where they come from, whether and how they differ from those faced in the past, how people think about them, how governments and the private sector deal with them, and how they can better deal with them in the future.

The title of the project, “The Privatization of Risk” (Hacker 2004), is meant to capture two linked trends in the management of economic risk in the United States. The first is the contemporary celebration of the private sector as the first and best means of dealing with problems of all kinds. This enthusiasm for private-sector solutions is nothing new. In the United States, the belief that private commercial institutions should deal with economic risks goes way back, and is deeply rooted in our political culture and in the framework of social policies that have arisen in our nation (Hacker 2002). Yet today the enthusiasm for the private sector is joined with a sometimes unbridled faith that new technologies and new attitudes have finally “solved” the problems of risk management that once bedeviled private insurers and financial institutions. In this ascendant credo, not only should the private sector manage major risks; it can do it better than it ever has—and, needless to say, better than government ever could.

This brings us to the second trend: the shift of responsibility for managing economic risk from government and employers onto individuals and their families. I have elsewhere called this “The Great Risk Shift” (Hacker 2006), and it is, in my view, the defining economic transformation of our times. The individual management of the economic risks of modern capitalism, whether through private retirement accounts or through personal investments in education and housing, has never been as widespread or as widely celebrated as it is today. Yet with this responsibility has come pressing new questions about the ability of individuals to perceive, plan for, and secure themselves against the most threatening risks to their financial welfare.

The essays that appear on this web forum do not present a single view on these questions. Nor are they of one mind about what should be done. What unites them is a commitment to grapple with a multi-part question at the center of any consideration of America’s economic future: how far has the privatization of risk progressed, why has it taken the direction that it has, and what does it mean for American families?

Just as risk can be a unifying idea in social life, it can be a unifying idea in the social sciences, calling to a single problem the thoughts and inquiries of diverse and distinguished scholars. Already, a growing number of researchers and theorists in a wide range of fields have turned to the concept of risk to illuminate important corners of social, economic, and political life. As chair of the Social Science Research Council’s project on risk privatization, I have worked with Craig Calhoun, president of the Council, to bring together some of the best of these social scientists, legal scholars, and historians to consider and write about their overlapping but distinct concerns. Their essays stand on their own. But they share a common conviction: that careful scholarship can and should speak to society directly and clearly on questions about which non-scholars truly care. The privatization of risk could not be a more appropriate topic for such a discussion.