On “Safetyism”

But these same scenes present an affront to the organs of social control. There would seem to be an inherent tension between the spirit of play and “safetyism” (I parse this tension more fully in my book Why We Drive, which will be published in the UK in July, with the subtitle On Risk, Freedom and Taking Back Control). Safetyism is a disposition that has been gaining strength for decades and is having a triumphal moment just now because of the virus. Public health, one of many institutions that speak on behalf of safety, has claimed authority to sweep aside whole domains of human activity as reckless, and therefore illegitimate.

I suspect the ease with which we have lately accepted the authority of health experts to reshape the contours of our common life is due to the fact that safetyism has largely displaced other moral sensibilities that might offer some resistance. At the level of sentiment, there appears to be a feedback loop wherein the safer we become, the more intolerable any remaining risk appears. At the level of bureaucratic grasping, we can note that emergency powers are seldom relinquished once the emergency has passed. Together, these dynamics make up a kind of ratchet mechanism that moves in only one direction, tightening against the human spirit.

Acquiescence in this appears to be most prevalent among the meritocrats who staff the managerial layer of society. Deferring to expert authority is a habit inculcated in the “knowledge economy”, naturally enough; the basic currency of this economy is epistemic prestige.

Among those who work in the economy of things, on the other hand, you see greater skepticism toward experts (whether they make their claim on epistemic or moral grounds) and less readiness to accept the adjustment of social norms by fiat ­– whether that means using new pronouns or wearing surgical masks. I am regularly in welding supply stores, auto parts stores and other light-industry venues. Nobody is wearing masks in these places. They are very small businesses: an environment largely free of the moral fashions and corresponding knowledge claims that set the tone in large organisations. There is no HR in a welding shop.

A pandemic is a deadly serious business. But we would do well to remember that bureaucracies have their own interests, quite apart from the public interest that is their official brief and warrant. They are very much in the business of tending and feeding the narratives that justify their existence. Further, given the way bureaucracies must compete for funding from the legislature, each must make a maximal case for the urgency of its mission, hence the necessity of its expansion, like a shark that must keep moving or die. It is clearer now than it was a few months ago that this imperative of expansion puts government authority in symbiosis with the morality of safetyism, which similarly admits no limit to its expanding imperium. The result is a moral-epistemic apparatus in which experts are to rule over citizens conceived as fragile incompetents. Read more»

Matthew Crawford, “The Danger of Safetyism May 15, 2020 (HT: D. G. Hart)


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  1. Read Matthew Crawford’s latest book ‘Why We Drive’ for more on this theme. One of my favorite reads for 2020.

  2. I have no problem listening to the health authorities and taking their recommendations seriously. I don’t think they are declaring some activities illegitimate. I think they know better than the president, Congress or the average person how to deal with this pandemic.

    • What if they reverse themselves? All the best scientific evidence regarding mask wearing prior to March was that masks were ineffective for the general public. Both Fauci and the Surgeon General said this. Later, they reversed themselves. Other experts, like Dr. Lispitch of Harvard, said in March that we needed to social distance for up to 24 months in order to slow the spread, but later said that you should attend BLM protests because racism was a bigger public health threat than COVID.

      Have you read the Great Barrington Declaration? If so, may we believe the experts that wrote it?

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