A couple of weeks ago I reminisced with a couple of friends about how our mothers used to pack us lunches and let us go hiking around in the hills north of town unsupervised for hours at a time when we were just seven or eight years old. Each of us said that we could never even imagine doing the same thing with our own kids today.
Our society has become obsessed with risk avoidance. And we’re not satisfied with simply managing our own risk; we are continually reaching out to force our well intentioned risk reduction measures onto everyone else. We have a whole industry of safety fascists that continually nag and harangue us about our bad choices. These folks have taken over where Puritanical finger waggers left off. And we’ve all gone along for the ride.
Thomas Jefferson said, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” (see here, scroll down to 1820)
But, unsatisfied with simply educating the people and then letting them live with the consequences of their actions, we continually legislate or judicially mandate new controls that steal liberty. It has become such a regular practice that there is rarely any consideration in the legislative chambers or the courts about the liberties that might be impinged by the measures under consideration.
Who would even think about defending the rights of restaurant goers in New York City to eat foods laden with trans fats? Or who would assert that people should have the right to buy a car that lacks seatbelts, electronic stabilization controls, and side-curtain airbags? It is certainly in the public’s best interest to require these things, isn’t it? And that makes it right, doesn’t it?
Jefferson puts freedom on a scale with education. At the one end is freedom and education. On the other end are compulsion and reduced freedoms. The elitist belief that the general public is too stupid, too greedy, too selfish, too [insert adjective describing your favorite moral failing] to respond to education moves us toward the compulsion end of the scale.
When we shift into our elitist mode of thinking, we can’t trust the people. And, by George, we have lots of evidence to show that they are untrustworthy when it comes to our view of moral behavior. We are simply too compassionate to allow them to suffer the consequences of their inappropriate actions, so we impose constraints to ensure that they don’t exceed the boundaries of our superior judgment.
But for all the good our enforcement of risk reduction does, we rob people of growth opportunities that can be found in no other way than in allowing them to make their own choices. My friends and I didn’t start our childhood forays away from home by wandering around the hills for hours. Our mothers first let us wander around our yards as toddlers, and then around our neighborhoods, and then around adjoining fields and neighborhoods.
We gained knowledge and experience from our activities—and yes, scrapes, bumps, and scary experiences—that provided us with a foundation that helped keep us safe as we wandered around the hills in our early years. The friends I mentioned earlier all agreed with me that our kids lack that kind of foundation today, and that this is largely why we cannot trust them to handle the dangers that exist in the hills around town.
What have we robbed our kids of in exchange for immediate peace of mind? And what are we robbing society of every time we mandate some new safety requirement instead of educating and allowing the natural consequences to follow?