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The trouble with protecting us from ourselves

The trouble with protecting us from ourselves

A few years ago, a work colleague departed for a short-term political appointment with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. I told him he could one day have his job back if he ended the ban on lawn darts. I loved those things as a kid. I also loved the Slip ‘n Slide, BB guns, itty bitty Lego pieces, model rocket engines, and biking San Francisco’s hills with no helmet. It wasn’t just toys. There was the tennis tournament where I got ill from drinking too much water. (Water! Who knew?) Or the time I ignored open cuts on my hand and stripped old deck stain without wearing gloves. And the time I jacked up my car without setting the emergency brake while it was parked on a hill.

And guess what—I’m still here and in one piece!

The problem is not that, “It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.”  It’s that when someone does get hurt, everyone now expects some federal agency to come the rescue. I suspect that each generation’s childhood memories of skinned knees, exposed wires, and head-out-the-window car rides go by the wayside when we become parents ourselves. Our fear of our kids getting hurt has morphed into a paternalistic plea for government to establish the parameters for acceptable risk.

The CPSC claims its mission is to protect children and families from unreasonable risks of injury and death associated with consumer products. But what is “unreasonable”? Spring is here, and with it come increases in outdoor activity, vacations, and barbecues. So should we ban cars, alcohol, gas stations that sell alcohol, baseball bats, golf clubs, airplanes, electricity, water, natural gas, stairs, knives and forks, and any round sports ball?? Do you know the catastrophes those can cause!?

Hysteria over risk drives government’s engine. And these days, many of the most misleading fears revolve around common chemicals.

That’s where my colleague Angela Logomasini’s recently released study, A Consumer’s Guide to Chemical Risk: Deciphering the “Science” Behind Chemical Scares, comes in. It attempts to reduce both confusion and fears about the risks associated with chemicals by providing insights about the science and politics behind the headlines. The aim is not to ignore the risks posed by artificial and naturally occurring chemicals, but to put the risks in context.

Managing risk is a tricky business with no one-size-fits all solution. So it is downright dangerous when politicians or, worse, un-elected bureaucrats try to do it on our behalf. Basing public policy on the extreme behavior of Darwin Award winners is decidedly counterproductive. The best scientists devote entire careers to accounting for scientific complexities and changes in the natural world, and they often make great advances. But society doesn’t work like a laboratory experiment.

In fact, society works better than a lab experiment. Next time you see a frightening headline about how half the items in a grocery aisle could kill you, remember people don’t drink 17 cups of laundry detergent per day (well, at least most don’t). But “all things in moderation” doesn’t make for good copy.

“The curious task of economics,” noted F.A. Hayek, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Yet, trying to design a risk-free world occupies much of our lawmakers’ time.

Politicians lack the patience—and often the understanding—that sees wisdom in the humility of acknowledging the unknown. Instead, they find it much easier to succumb to the tyranny of the urgent, egged on by overzealous consumer groups, grieving but misguided parents, activist groups, and cronyist industries. This grossly subjective approach to risk management has led to policies that waste our labors in the name of eliminating uncertainty.

That is, pardon my French, an absurd goal. Just how absurd? Consider the following example:

My daughter once played pee-wee soccer in a “no scoring” league. The ostensible goal of the no-score policy, I gathered, was to protect the kids from damage to their self-esteem, the stress of competition, and the idea that some succeed and others do not. No one appreciated the irony that that particular league’s administrators were among the country’s most successful political elites—those who built careers out of winning elections and defeating incumbents with ruthless efficiency.  Yet despite the adults’ best efforts, after each game my daughter and her teammates knew exactly who had won or lost. No damaged self-esteem. No stress. No hurt feelings. Just awareness of the consequences of taking chances.

Now, if I could only get my hands on a set of lawn darts.

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