Aaron Wildavsky

Nothing is Safe; The Concept of Safety Covers a Large Continuum
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Aaron Wildavsky (May 31, 1930 – September 4, 1993)

 

Was an American political scientist known for his pioneering work in public policy, government budgeting, and risk management.

 

Early years

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A native of Brooklyn in New York, Wildavsky was the son of two Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. After graduating from Brooklyn College, he served in the U.S. Army and then won a Fulbright Fellowship to the University of Sydney for 1954–55. Wildavsky returned to the U.S. to attend graduate school at Yale University. His PhD dissertation, a study of the politics of the Dixon-Yates atomic energy controversy, was completed in 1958.

 

Career

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Wildavsky taught at Oberlin College from 1958 until 1962, then lived and worked in Washington D.C for a year before moving to the University of California at Berkeley where he worked as a professor of political science for the rest of his life. At Berkeley, he was chairman of the political science department (1966–1969) and founding dean of the Graduate School of Public Policy (1969–1977).

Wildavsky was president of the American Political Science Association for 1985–86. He was also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Public Administration.

Wildavsky was a noted scholar on budgeting and budget theory. He is associated with the idea of incrementalism in budgeting, meaning that the most important predictor of a future political budget is the prior one; not a rational economic or decision process undertaken by the state. His book Politics of the Budgetary Process was named by the American Society for Public Administration as the third most influential work in public administration in the last fifty years. In Searching for Safety (1988), Wildavsky argued that trial and error, rather than the precautionary principle, is the best way to manage risks. He noted that rich, technologically advanced societies were the safest, as measured by life expectancy and quality of life. Precautionary approaches to approving new technology are irrational, he said, because they demand that we know whether something is safe before we can do the very tests that would demonstrate its safety or dangerousness. Furthermore, precaution eliminates the benefits of new technology along with the harms. He advocated enhancing society's capacity to cope with and adapt to the unexpected, rather than trying to prevent all catastrophes in advance.

Wildavsky was a prolific author, writing or co-writing thirty-nine books and numerous journal articles, including important works on the budgetary process, policy analysis, political culture, foreign affairs, public administration, and comparative government. Five more books were published posthumously--bringing the total to forty-four. Wildavsky was the recipient of the 1996 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, with Max Singer.

 

 

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