The swimming-pool scourge

In the course of puncturing President Obama’s “if a law saves one life, it’s worth passing” theory of unlimited government power, Tim Carney at the Washington Times wonders why the same reasoning isn’t applied to various other features of American life that could be banned in the name of public safety:

Obama’s most facile argument Wednesday was this plea for gun control: “[I]f there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.” Vice President Biden said a week earlier that “if your actions result in only saving one life, they’re worth taking.”

The flaw in this reasoning is pretty obvious. Thousands of Americans will drown this year in swimming pools. You could save many of those lives by banning swimming pools. That doesn’t mean we have “an obligation to try” banning swimming pools.

We don’t outlaw pools because — however heartless this sounds — we weigh other goods against the good of preventing deaths. In the case of a pool, we weigh the costs to health, fun and liberty against the lifesaving benefits of banning pools. When talking about gun control, we could weigh lives saved by outlawing guns against the costs to recreation, liberty and self-defense. But the Obama-Biden “just one child” rule precludes any two-sided analysis.

Here Carney illustrates a common fallacy of emotional appeals for stronger government: the notion that we should abandon all trade-offs and pursue absolute safety at any price.  Obviously, the people who occasionally make such pleas don’t really believe what they’re saying, or else they would support burdensome regulations on demonstrably dangerous things they like, such as automobiles or swimming pools.

There is a point at which the marginal cost of anything makes it unreasonable to pursue, and that includes public health and safety.  To argue otherwise is to strike an emotionally manipulative pose divorced from logic.  We could “purify” life in various ways that would undoubtedly make it “safer,” but there are lines that even the most dedicated nanny-state activists thinks it would be absurd to cross.  In the end, we are merely debating where those lines should be drawn.

But upon reflection, cars and swimming pools are two questionable examples for illustrating the point… because there actually are movements under way to severely restrict both of them.  The internal combustion engine has been under political assault for some time.  You can hardly find a utopian socialist who doesn’t think Americans spend too much time farting around in clouds of greenhouse gas.  They should be happier with less freedom of movement, and settle for mass transit or electric vehicles.

And the swimming pool faces the often-delayed threat of “Poolmageddon,” an incredibly expensive set of regulations that could significantly reduce the number of public pools.  Here’s the latest news, from Aqua magazine:

Fewer than 30 days remain for aquatic facility operators to become compliant with provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act regarding access to public pools and spas. Last May, the U.S. Department of Justice extended the deadline from March 15, 2012, to Jan. 31, 2013.

For pools less than 300 linear feet in size, the ADA Standard for Accessible Design calls for one means of access, which must be either an ADA-compliant lift or a sloped entry. Pools with greater than 300 linear feet of pool wall must also have a second means of access — either another lift or ramp, or a transfer wall, a transfer system or pool stairs. Estimates have placed the number of pools that need to be brought into compliance at approximately 100,000, thereby helping earn the provision the nickname “poolmageddon.” A backlog of orders at lift-manufacturing facilities was said to have been a primary reason for multiple deadline extensions.

How are pool owners dealing with the imposition of thousands of dollars in costs, which would already have ruined them or compelled them to close their swimming pools, but for the whimsical indulgence of the government?  In some cases, not well:

Local governing bodies have been busy approving the purchase of lifts in recent months, but not all pool operators appear to have made up their minds yet about whether to comply with the regulations. “Is it worth spending thousands of dollars to put Band-Aids on the pool in hopes that we’ll get another few months or another few years?” Merrill (Wis.) parks and recreation director Dan Wendorf asked the Wausau Daily Herald last month, referring to a the city’s aging outdoor pool. “We’re using taxpayer dollars, and we have to use them wisely.” He added that the money required to make the old pool compliant might be better off put toward developing a new facility.

Perhaps swimming pools are not the best rhetorical instrument for illustrating the absurd extremes of government over-reach in the name of public safety.