Free Lunch “Safety”: Part II

by | Dec 29, 2004

The government will allow you to risk your life for the sake of recreation by sky-diving, mountain climbing or any number of other dangerous activities. But it will not allow you to risk your life for the sake of avoiding arthritis pain by taking Vioxx. There is no principle behind such differences in government policy. […]

The government will allow you to risk your life for the sake of recreation by sky-diving, mountain climbing or any number of other dangerous activities. But it will not allow you to risk your life for the sake of avoiding arthritis pain by taking Vioxx.

There is no principle behind such differences in government policy. No one has to show that some particular medication is more dangerous than some particular recreation in order to get the medication banned while the recreational activity is allowed to go on.

Businesses that conduct dangerous recreational activities are not being denounced for “corporate greed” by making money at the risk of other people’s lives. But such charges are flung around regularly about pharmaceutical companies — and are taken seriously in the media.

The sad fact is that many issues that are argued as if they were matters of principle are in fact only matters of attitude. We are used to hearing denunciations of “unsafe” drugs, cars, water, and various other things that crusaders and the media happen to have singled out.

This has created attitudes, rather than anything that could be dignified as a principle. Far more dangerous things not only escape criticism but are even promoted by some of the same people who create hysteria over more fashionable fears.

The banning of the insecticide DDT is a classic example.

Unsubstantiated claims of dangers to human beings from using DDT have led to bans on this insecticide in many countries around the world, leading to a resurgence of mosquitoes carrying malaria, whose documented deaths have been in the millions.

It is attitude, not principle. An attitude of reverence has been created for Rachel Carson by the environmental movement because she claimed that DDT would wipe out song birds by its effects on their eggs. Yet she has probably been responsible for more deaths of human beings than anybody without an army.

One death in a boxing ring will set off loud demands to ban that sport but hundreds of deaths from boating accidents will elicit no such response. Nor are such gross double standards confined to safety issues.

Americans will be denounced for greed and materialism by people from countries where individuals do not donate nearly as high a percentage of their incomes as Americans do, nor volunteer a fraction as much time to philanthropic causes as Americans do. Moreover, there will be a chorus of Americans on the left echoing the foreign charges.

Politicians who give away the taxpayers’ money to social programs will be lionized in the media for their “compassion.” But many businessmen across the country, who each donate millions of dollars of their own money to help the less fortunate, get no such praise, if they are mentioned at all.

Facts don’t matter to those for whom principles don’t matter, however loudly those principles may be proclaimed. Many so-called “thinking people” do remarkably little thinking.

Much ingenuity may go into articulating and rationalizing their attitudes toward business, the police, American society, etc., but these are still attitudes rather than principles.

This is not to say that there is no consistency in their behavior. There is great consistency but it is consistency with a particular vision of the world rather than consistency with proclaimed principles of safety, equality, or morality.

That vision casts them in the role of wiser and nobler people — defenders of the downtrodden, protectors of the environment, advocates of peace and opponents of war. There is always some crusade that requires their superior wisdom and virtue to be imposed on others.

Particular attitudes towards particular things that happen to be in vogue among those who wrap themselves in the mantle of chic virtue serve as a badge of identity, showing who is one of the special Us rather than the more ordinary Them.

This is heady stuff and they are not going to give it up for anything so mundane as facts or logic or principles. The best that the rest of us can do is to stop calling their ego trips idealism.

Thomas Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His dozen books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Please contact your local newspaper editor if you want to read the THOMAS SOWELL column in your hometown paper.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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