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The Safety Paradox
Recently, a reader in the Elgin Couriers Speak Out section commented on her disagreement with Laura Griffis commentary (Elgin Courier, Dec. 29) that suggested parents should not fear kids access to the Internet. The reader pointed out that a local fourteen year-old girl ran away from home recently because of a connection she made with someone on the Internet. That was supposed to be sufficient evidence that the Internet is dangerous and should be regulated.
I dont wish to get embroiled in the specific costs/benefits of Internet access. That the benefits outweigh the costs should be obvious to any forward-thinking person. But what does bother me is the method of thinking (or lack of it) that motivates someone to comment to a newspaper stating such an opinion.
For many, one anecdotal experience is enough to elicit the opinion that the government again should tighten its stranglehold on individual liberty through yet another regulation.
What activates this type of attitude is a wish fulfillment of perfect safety, which is as tenable a concept as heaven on earth. If we were to try to create a perfectly safe environment, we would have to ban roads, autos, swimming pools, stairs, bathtubs, cellophane, five-gallon buckets, all fuel, . . . The list would be virtually endless.
The corollary to this illogical position of perfect-safety fulfillment is the If-it-can-save-just-one-person,-it-is-worth-it argument. What is never considered is an overall evaluation of the ramifications of the regulatory act. It very well may be that implementing a safety regulation in one area of concern creates a situation that is even more dangerous for more people in other arenas. A perfect example of this is the snail-pace process of the Federal Drug Administration in approving life-saving drugs. While thousands in Europe have been saved through approved heart medicine, beta blockers, in the United States, thousands of Americans had died because of the lack of prompt FDA approval. The motivation behind the slow FDA approval process is to save lives; the unintended consequence is to sentence thousands of Americans to death.
Even if, in net, a regulation may save lives, most of us understand that the benefits of shunning the regulation far exceed the costs. The millions of voters in the marketplace (which Adam Smith called the invisible hand) decide that some deaths are a justified price to pay for the efficiency of modern life. Approximately thirty-thousand Americans die each year in vehicular accidents. Yet no one (except maybe Al Gore) seriously proposes to eliminate the automobile from American society.
In his television special, Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death (April 21, 1994, ABC), John Stossel demonstrated convincingly through proper use of statistics that the most dangerous situation for individuals in America is neither crime, cigarettes, pollution, nor accidents. It is poverty. Life expectancy is reduced more by poverty than by all other factors combined. The logical conclusion to be reached then is to reduce poverty by promoting entrepreneurismrisk-takingfree markets, not increase it by engaging in other regulatory behavior (to alleviate perceived dangerous conditions).
Later in the program, in front of a live audience, Stossel submitted the following scenario:
Suppose we were to introduce an energy source in America that was much cleaner and cheaper than petroleum. It is a colorless gas and highly explosive. It would be piped into homes and the use of it would probably kill 100 to 200 Americans every year. Would you people be in favor of such a fuel?
Virtually all of those in the audience responded, No, its too dangerous. One astute person in the audience pointed out that the fuel Stossel was referring to sounded very much like natural gas. And indeed, it was. If natural gas was first to be introduced to Americans today, would they allow it? Probably notway too dangerous.
Perfect anything is not an option. Therefore the motivation that promotes government regulation is fallacious. The main problem with government regulation is that it usually does not look at the big picture, but looks at cases in isolation. Human beings, however, never act in isolation. One act always causes a reaction somewhere else. Human life is dynamic. Values change, preferences change, fundamental ideas mutate and innovate. These changes occur by the millions every second of the day. It is beyond the talent of any prognosticator, any bureaucrat, any politician to anticipate those changes. Government regulation is always inept, cumbersome, ill intended, and many times dangerous in and of itself.
But there is hope for those concerned about safety. Just because government regulation is bad policy; the same does not go for market regulation. Government regulation is bad because it can not read the millions of preferences ever-changing in the market place. But that is exactly what the market place does do. Without any expert overseeing the process, the millions of consumer preferences get factored in the marketplace by supply and demand. If the market calls for certain regulation, some entity in the market place will supply that need. A good example of this is Underwriters Laboratories. UL developed without any government interference. The company regulates safety of electronic equipment. It is a consortium developed by private insurance companies developed by the motivation not necessarily to protect people but to protect insurance-company profits. That is why Adam Smith was so right when he said, It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
So too with safety. Individuals looking after their own (enlightened) self-interest will bring about a safer society for all, rather then bureaucrats implementing a myriad of government regulations that stifle initiative, block innovation, and prevent the very basis of a good society that the regulations ostensibly promote.
I frequently hear the argument that many people cant be trusted to make the necessary judgments in a free society for their own good. A bureaucrat must make those judgments for them. The argument is fallacious. They would equally be as disqualified in voting for the right politicians to run their lives properly.
Benjamin Franklin once noted, They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Someone later added, And in the end will get neither.
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