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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Smothered By the Security Blanket

It's not up to governments to protect people from their mistakes. We must take responsibility for our own actions, writes Caspar Conde in this piece from the Sydney Morning Herald:

The blame game has gone too far when governments become guardians
Australians enjoy a quality of life unknown to earlier generations. Generally, we live longer than ever before; we are better housed, better fed and better educated; and few of us have faced the dangers of war or the traumas of poverty.

Scientific and technical progress has made our lives much less risky. Modern agriculture means we no longer face the threat of famine while modern medicine has banished many previously life-threatening diseases.

But the advance of science has created new risks. In some cases - for example, the possibility of global warming or nuclear proliferation - the threat posed by these risks is catastrophic.

Because we have grown accustomed to an easy, comfortable life, and because the risks that we now face can appear genuinely frightening, we have as a society become a lot more risk-averse. There is an increasing use of the "precautionary principle" - the idea that it is better to err on the side of caution, even if this means letting opportunities slip by.

The precautionary principle has unfortunately crept into everyday policy. Governments today are increasingly legislating and regulating with a view to minimising all risks, no matter how trivial.

Take the preoccupation with obesity. Western populations are getting fatter, which has health implications. At the last federal election both major parties released policies to tackle obesity. The Liberals suggested after-hours exercise programs for schoolchildren; Labor wanted to ban junk-food advertising during children's TV shows.

These initiatives are well-intentioned, but it is devastating for personal responsibility when the most basic decisions of what to eat and when to exercise are delegated to government.

True, the main focus in Australia so far has been on children, but isn't it the parents' or guardians' role to raise their children so that they learn about self-control and a good diet? Rather than government banning the ads, shouldn't parents be teaching their children how to respond to them?

The banning instinct does not stop at obesity. In Victoria, following two incidents where broken glass was used as a weapon in pub brawls, the police chief commissioner proposed a ban on glasses in pubs and nightclubs as the best way to prevent injuries.

In NSW, the Premier, Bob Carr, announced a $1100 penalty for people who buy alcohol for friends who are intoxicated.

The message in both cases is that drinkers should no longer be expected to control their alcohol intake, or to behave with restraint.

Instead, pubs must prevent risk by serving beer in plastic glasses, as if at a children's party, and friends must under pain of law determine when others have had enough.

In the risk-averse society that is emerging, government is making it its business to anticipate and prevent every foreseeable negative event. This is the precautionary principle gone mad; nothing is to be allowed to go wrong.

When a population is encouraged to depend on government to protect it from risks, personal dignity is threatened and the principle of limited government disappears. Before World War I, the federal government passed an average of 23 new pieces of legislation each year. Today, that has risen to average 178. As time goes by we become increasingly regulated and monitored, which means we lose the habit of self-reliance.

The clearest example of this is the growth of the welfare state, the ultimate government risk-minimisation strategy.

In 1965, only 3 per cent of working-age adults relied on welfare payments as their primary source of income. Today, that figure is 16 per cent, or one in six people.

The less we are required to look after ourselves, the more government assumes the task for us.

And for all the cost, the erosion of liberty, and the learned helplessness, preventive government policies do not even work...

Effective or not, politicians keep spending money as "proof" they are "doing something" even though in many instances there is very little they can do. And the more preventive programs fail in their declared objectives, the stronger the pressure to bring in more controls.

The philosopher David Hume wrote: "It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once". Instead, governments - often with the best of intentions - just chip away at our freedoms.

We need to recognise that, even in our modern world, we cannot eradicate all risks and all dangers, and that the attempt to do so signals a path to totalitarianism, not happiness. It is better to be left to make our own mistakes than to be smothered in the suffocating embrace of a paternalistic state.

9:32:00 am