PROTECTING US FROM OURSELVES
by Stephen J. Kristof
( all rights reserved)
When it comes to government and the business of governing people, there’s a fine line between an administration that strives to protect its citizens from threat by others and one that zealously tries to protect a citizen from harming his or her self. Over the course of history in probably every corner of the world, the pendulum has swung back and forth between the extremes of an ‘every man for himself’ free-for-all, to that of an iron-fisted clampdown on the kinds of basic individual actions that should be hands-off, God-given liberties.
Unfortunately, we appear to be moving in the latter direction once again. It’s not been an overnight change, by any means. It’s hard to argue the fact that many of our individual liberties have been chipped away, bit by bit, for the past few decades. More troubling, though, is the fact that we’ve rolled over and accepted it without so much as questioning the need or motive.
A big part of our pushover mentality has to do with a popular notion that just about every aspect of life these days has become far more dangerous than it ever was before. As such, we’re willing to play the trade-off game. It goes like this; I’m afraid that such-and-such could happen to me or my family, so I’m willing to trade away one of my small freedoms in exchange for a lock-tight guarantee of safety and security.
These kinds of trade-offs are troubling enough, but it gets far more dangerous when we relinquish our independence vis-à-vis individual actions that do no harm to others. The worst offender is the person who muses, “I really don't agree with this new law or regulation because I think it should be my own choice...but I'll accept it because it actually forces me to follow a course of action that I really should be following anyway.”
Sound familiar? The only problem with that kind of reasoning is that it doesn’t fit into the paradigm of who we are as a society and how we came to be. It’s more like rationalization than reasoning, because on some level we don’t legitimately buy-into what we’re being sold and what we end-up paying for. But we go ahead anyway and accept the exchange. We accept constraint in exchange for safety, even though we know that we’re getting the short end of the stick.
And it’s not the big stuff that’s most troubling. People all over the world have traded away a host of former travel conveniences for necessary security. Within the context of the reality of murderous plots and brutality against innocent people, giving-up some rights is reasonable. In this day and age when traveling, having one’s privacy breached, arriving at an airport an hour earlier or having to remove one’s shoes at a security point is simply necessary. Yes, it’s a pain, but the potential consequence of maintaining those insignificant liberties is unthinkable.
So, then, if relinquishing conveniences in exchange for personal and national security is an arguably good trade-off, then what are the bad ones? Think about the multitude of laws and regulations that seek to regulate, limit or ban the everyday things that our neighbors can do. And don’t forget that when we put limits or prohibitions on what our neighbors can do, we too, have to abide by those same restrictions.
Whether a nation is led by democratic or authoritarian rule, when it comes to protecting citizens, most administrations put external threats at the top of their to-do list. That’s one of those incontestable things about a government; it absolutely must protect its citizens from physical or economic dangers that come from beyond that nation’s borders. Unfortunately for citizens of authoritarian rule, their leaders also have a way of being heavy handed with anything or anyone that is perceived as an internal threat to the government. But democracies can also end-up being heavy handed by focusing too much on the special interests of the squeakiest wheels.
What happens when we trade away our ability to make an individual decision on something that exclusively affects how we live our own life and does not affect others? The result is that we have less autonomy than we did before we sealed that particular deal. As a consequence, a bit of our self-determination – something our society holds in such great esteem – flies out the window. What’s worse is that every time we roll over and allow yet another law or regulation to in some way curtail our personal decision-making, we’re all that more willing to let it happen again and again.
Let’s look at two laws that affect our personal freedoms. The first one is the law that four U.S. states and six Canadian provinces now have which bans smoking in any car when a child is present. Many other jurisdictions are on board and are considering going the same route. This law makes sense because it protects a segment of society that has little-to-no clout and is unable to protect itself against the obvious and proven danger of second-hand smoke. It is unpopular with some smokers but it’s simply an extension of most people’s common sense and compassion for children; whether one smokes or not. It should be in the law books because some folks are simply too thick or selfish to keep their children safe and healthy. Maybe it’s an extreme comparison, but laws that make child abuse a criminal act use a similar premise.
The second law is one that requires every homeowner to have a working smoke detector on every floor. On the surface, it seems reasonable enough. But is it as reasonable as the one targeting smoking in cars when kids are on board? See if this comparison makes sense; in the first example, kids are better protected because their idiot parents can no longer legally smoke with them in the vehicle. In the second example, kids are protected because there’s less chance that their lazy parents will neglect the smoke alarms.
They may seem similar, but they are not the same at all. The first law is necessary because it gives traffic cops a tool to use – a fine – that just might make the moron think twice before lighting-up in the car again if kids are present. But the second law is useless. Does it affect how often people change batteries on the smoke alarms? Not likely. Does it save lives? Not likely. Is it yet another law taking-up space on a page that makes a politician look busy and diligent? Very likely. Does it lead to more votes? You guessed it.
This is yet another example of a law that strives to regulate yet another picayune aspect of our lives, when more could likely be accomplished through education. Public education is often far more persuasive than legislation, but politicians can't take credit for the progress that public education programs produce, the same way they can with legislation. A reasonable law with regard to working smoke alarms would instead be aimed exclusively at landlords and property management companies; this protects people from others who may have financial reason not to go the extra mile to keep a property safe. But to legislate it in the homes we own is insulting and futile.
There has been a lot of noise in recent months about banning cell phone use while driving. The law is now a reality in Ontario and has already been in effect in several other Canadian provinces. It’s also the law in 6 U.S. states (California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington), the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands. It is reasonable and, by all reports, saves not only the lives of the person who is holding the phone while driving, but others as well who are sharing the road (which includes anyone reading this).
The worst culprits, though, are those who text while driving. Absolutely insane. In general, the danger associated with texting, holding a phone, reading a newspaper, holding a pet, eating or otherwise being distracted and using one’s hand while the other one is on the steering wheel should be obvious to anyone. So banning the use of hand-held devices is logical and fits into the realm of protecting us from others who may do us harm.
But does that mean that we need to go a step further? Safety groups in both the U.S. and Canada have been lobbying hard to encourage federal lawmakers to enact sweeping legislation that would ban drivers from all cell phone use; not merely the hand-held variety. This is an example of pushing something beyond reasonable limits, while impacting a common and responsible personal activity that’s not much different from talking with someone in the passenger seat.
The argument is flawed, but as in so many other cases, we fail to be too concerned because it’s “for our own good”. If that’s the case, then perhaps we should consider passing legislation to ban:
-talking to passengers
-glancing at billboards
-taking the odd sip of coffee
-looking at one’s watch or at the dashboard clock
-changing the radio station
Use the same logic that pervades so much of today’s thinking, and we can feel good about banning these things because it moves one step further toward removing all potential risk from driving.
"Removing all risk" is a concept that, unfortunately, has become very popular. More unfortunate, though, is the fact that when governments engage in legislating away all risk, they also legislate away more of our personal freedoms and do so by micro-managing. And micromanaging is not a good thing.
Think about it this way. Although they make their employees’ lives a living hell, bosses who micromanage really do believe that they can derive outstanding results and minimal risk. Hmmm…see a pattern here? Do we actually believe that we can make a given activity completely safe by means of micro-legislation?
Increasingly, our politicians are passing laws championed by special interest groups who seek to remove all risk to the planet and its people. Some proposed laws are so austere, they could lead to a ‘police state’ sort of existence. For example, legislators are actually considering MADD’s push to allow random roadside breathalyzer tests without any evidence of intoxication. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater! Why don’t we just go ahead and allow law enforcement officials to come into our homes without just cause and “kick the tires” a bit. You never know what they might find. And don’t forget that it’s an admirable thing because there’s a chance, albeit slim, that our neighbor just might be doing something illegal in the privacy of his own home. And it’s okay if it’s us that they want to check-out; don’t worry about it – it’s for our own good.
By the way, watch-out what you say around the water cooler or to your guy living next to you. Don’t dare speak-out about the fact that certain laws are unnecessary and are simply there to make someone look better. Doing so may be worse than sounding politically incorrect, because defending the personal liberties that these types of laws restrict may be, for some people, synonymous with condoning the socially repugnant act that the law supposedly discourages.
It’s not logical, but we buy it. If you protest the cell phone and driving law, you are a selfish person who is obviously comfortable with putting other drivers in certain danger. Speak out against the ban of Christmas or any religious décor on government property and you are a religious relic who is intolerant of others. Argue against the law prohibiting you and your friends from having a little fire in your backyard firepit and you’re solely responsible for killing the planet. Speak your mind about the possibility of a random breath test law and you’re selfish and care more about your personal liberties than that of innocent drivers.
These types of laws aren’t about the big stuff. They almost always begin as some organization’s public awareness campaign. But then the proponents get over-zealous and their lobbyist finds a politician who wants to look proactive. The result is a public awareness campaign on steroids that gains momentum and eventually turns into law.
Where do we go from here? Perhaps it’s time to be more aware of the source. Why is it that during the past few decades we’ve seen more deregulation of profit-based corporations and increased regulation of individual activities? You see, it’s very hard for a politician to say yes to a law or regulation that restricts a corporation’s profitability, even when that regulation benefits the constituent. Why? Because campaign dollars are at risk.
It should be equally obvious that it’s far easier for a politician to say yes to a regulation that does not affect corporate profits, restricts the constituent, comes with the allure of campaign contributions and has the added benefit of making it appear as though he or she is saving the planet or its people.
We have a responsibility to understand that not every law that “looks good” is a good law. We need to become more involved in the political process and make our voices heard as legislation is being floated or, more seriously, bills are being debated.
We also need to suppress our insatiable appetite to control our destiny. As our society becomes more secular and less religious, we’re slowly but surely buying into the illusion that we have a great deal more control over our lives than we actually do. Making more laws to control every little thing that our neighbor, the driver in the next lane or our co-worker tries to do, does not make us safer and does not make us more free.
What it does accomplish is to make us doubt our own ability to make responsible decisions for our families and ourselves.
News flash – we can’t control everything, we can’t make every situation safe and a million more personal behaviour laws won’t change that. There’s an old saying that goes something like this. “Want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans.”
Believe it or not, a pretty big chunk of feeling “free” comes with a necessary measure of – yes – danger and uncertainty.
A completely safe and controlled existence? Not worth living.
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