The goblins that stalk us

We worry about losing our jobs when the risk is low, we fear crime even as the figures fall. But the costs of living in a scaredy-cat society are huge.

by Richard Reeves

I'm not afraid, insists the young apprentice. 'You will be,' replies the wise mentor, 'you will be.' Yes, it could be Alan Sugar. In fact (as the older, nerdier reader will have instantly spotted), the advice is proffered by an even more wizened survivor, Yoda, to earnest pupil Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.

The exchange is a pithy summary of the British and American labour markets. Way back in the innocent, Keynesian, free-love, full-employment '60s we were not afraid. Now fear stalks the workplace. Since 9/11, it also hovers over every airport and Tube station. Parents are wracked with worry about paedophiles, speeding cars and playground bullies.

It is one of the greatest tragedies of our time. At a point in history when we are richer, healthier and safer than ever before, we tremble. We apply the force of reason to science, medicine and engineering but tremble before the gods of joblessness, disease and death. Jeremy Bentham, the ultra-rationalist philosopher, was so afraid of night-time goblins that his assistants were made to sleep by his door (an unenviable task, given Bentham's prodigious snoring). Today, we are all Benthams. By any sensible, rational yardstick, we should be luxuriating in our extraordinary fortune. But still the goblins stalk us.

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