Quasi-off-topic musing

by Ted Frank on March 2, 2008

Inconceivably beyond my frame of reference as an American: self-operated rides in a Denmark amusement park (as part of a larger travelogue on a very strange park, Bon Bon Land). Instructions are provided on signs: customers seat themselves, and the next person on line is supposed to press the appropriate button at the appropriate time to send a customer hurtling down a zip line.

It fascinates me how other cultures tolerate risk and reject idiot-proofing so much differently than the US. I wonder which way the causal arrow goes with the general litigiousness of American culture: are we litigious because we’re risk-averse, or are we risk-averse because we’re litigious? If the former, perhaps the European example actually reflects the moral hazard of social insurance. (Of course, other photos on the travelogue pages demonstrate other important differences between Denmark and the US.)

Related: Subcontinental Drift on zoos in Southeast Asia.

Update: Amusement-park-loving torts prof Bill Childs comments, which is appropriate, because the post was originally just going to be an email to Childs and a handful of other people before I realized there was no reason not to just expand it into a post.


And another update: a reader writes me to say “Maybe the lawyers in Europe might wake up and start trolling for injured plaintiffs as a result of your posting.” Which might just be the hint to the answer to my question of the causal arrow: we’re litigious because the American system creates incentives to “troll for injured plaintiffs” in a way that the European legal system does not—yet. The perverse incentives for American lawyers in turn create distorted incentives to businesses and consumers, which in turn likely make us less safe because of overwarning leaving us oblivious to obvious risk. Irrational risk-aversion isn’t unique to the US; we see invocation of the “precautionary principle” in Europe frequently.

Of course, risk-aversion may just be a luxury good. In other words, people may just prefer a certain level of irrationality in risk preferences, in which case Americans have more of it, because, as a wealthier society, we can more easily afford to bear the costs of the additional frictions it causes, just as we can more easily afford SUVs. Of course, it doesn’t help to have special interest groups for whom billions of dollars in wealth-transfers rides if Americans start to change their mind about risk-aversion; trial lawyers cater to it, to be sure, but so do many mainstream product advertisers and politicians.

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Overlawyering making America a laughingstock
05.18.08 at 6:11 pm

{ 5 comments }

1 Todd Rogers 03.02.08 at 8:13 pm

I wonder if you just let the cat out of the bag.

2 Joe Bingham 03.02.08 at 9:22 pm

Also related: the war on drugs (and now tobacco).

3 billb 03.02.08 at 9:59 pm

I think we’re litigious and because we’re greedy. Greediness leads to risk aversion when the risk is of being the defendant in a lawsuit but to risk taking (gambling, mortgage-backed securities (gambling), crazy stunts, etc.) and denial of the risks involved when there’s the possibility of economic gain.

4 kimsch 03.03.08 at 1:58 pm

The Apenheul in The Netherlands is another. Monkeys run free in parts of the of the park. Spider monkeys will sit on shoulders and bounce off the heads of children in strollers. Other monkeys will take one’s hand and lead one about. One pulled itself up on my shoulder and sat there for a while (a 20-25 pound monkey). He then wrapped his prehensile tail around my neck and hung down for a piece of lettuce that was on a drinking fountain I was standing next to. A chimp attempted to take my camera from me and got mad when I wouldn’t let him take it. He bit my wrist even, but didn’t break the skin.

Couldn’t happen here.

5 Tom T. 03.04.08 at 10:35 am

If you look at the rickety and often dilapidated condition of little amusement parks and carnivals around the US similar to Bon Bon Land, I think empirically it’s hard to argue that this is an industry that has been driven to defensive over-investment in safety procedures.

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