Yascha Mounk blames the passivity of the Japanese response to their nuclear power crisis on liberal individualism; authoritarian states or more communitarian neocons would have been quick to send workers to their deaths for the sake of the greater whole, as the Soviet Union did at Chernobyl.
Really? To be sure, the Soviet Union was cavalier with the lives of its soldiers and workers in the face of disaster. But it was no less cavalier with the safety of civilians or basic safety measures in the first place. Authoritarian regimes, like the neocons, are quick to sacrifice other people, but often show few or no results.
Reducing the Japanese crisis to a single cause?liberal individualism?is a fool?s game. Still, individualism is not the word I would choose to describe the massively coordinated hierarchal industrial organizations and government support that are necessary to build nuclear power plants. The ideology that threatens to pollute vast stretches of the Japanese hinterlands if not worse is better summarized by a different word: hubris.
Nuclear power plants are based on the assumption that governmental and corporate bureaucracies can safely tame the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Nuclear power plants create waste that will remain dangerous for periods longer than the history of human civilization. The political choice to bring this danger into the world is based on an extraordinary confidence in our institutions?an utterly unsubstantiated belief that planners can identify and protect against all the contingencies that might affect their projects for the indefinite future. Or perhaps it is based more simply on a willful disregard for the contingency of human existence, a messianic belief, all too commonly shared by ideologues of the corporatist Right and the authoritarian Left, that Heaven or a Social Darwinist law of progress assures that all will be for the best in this best of all possible worlds, regardless of the foolish acts of individual leaders or their countries? political systems.
Unfortunately, our world comes with few guarantees, and the ones that it has?the inevitability of decline and death?are not comforting. A proper regard for the limitations of human plans would lead us simply to avoid technologies with small chances of catastrophic disaster. Whether the issue is nuclear power plants, wars of choice, or markets in financial derivatives, we know that our governmental and corporate institutions will consistently underestimate and fail to plan for unlikely tail risks. And we know that Murphy?s Law?anything that can go wrong, will go wrong?will apply. If we take enough risks often enough, the highly unlikely is certain to happen.
The fault here lies not with individualism but corporatist triumphalism, the view that modern decision-making?guided by the cost-benefit analyses of our bureaucrats and the trading strategies of our financial markets?can tame unruly reality. That is an ideology shared by neocons, market fundamentalists (although no nuclear power plant has ever been built without legal exemption from ordinary market restraints), and Stalinist and corporatist authoritarians alike.