Protect Us from Government Protectors

In the June issue of Reason magazine, senior editor Nick Gillespie notes the supposedly imminent dangers to our kids that we must guard against – asbestos, lead-based paint, abduction, satanic cults, pornography on the Internet, helmetless bike rides, playground equipment, and Lord knows what else – and wonders, "Do we best prepare our children for responsible, engaged lives by seeking to child-proof the world?"

Gillespie is worried that the children may react to this smothering protection by either shrinking from all the world's dangers and opportunities alike or else rebelling by taking more and more unmeasured risks.

Gillespie raises an important public policy point because guarding against these presumed dangers, not only to children but also to all of us, is the basis of hundreds of laws and thousands of government regulations, requiring the spending of billions of dollars by government and the private sector. Too often, those who raise caution flags are vilified or ignored in the rush to protect us against yet another threat.

Groups with various axes to grind besiege us – and their congressmen and senators – almost daily with dire disclosures. Particulate matter in the air is shortening our life spans and aggravating children's asthma. Alar on apples is poisoning kids, and pesticides on vegetables are poisoning the rest of us. Practically everything we eat, drink or breathe is full of manmade chemicals that probably cause some kind of cancer or other. The medicine we take may threaten our health or our lives even further. Danger in the workplace is rampant, either from unprotected machinery or berserk coworkers. At home, we get it from collapsing ladders or defective appliances. And if none of that gets us, there's always unprecedented stress in our daily lives.

And yet….

Children born today can expect to live 12 to 14 years longer than those born in 1940. They grow taller and stronger, and they don't face threats from polio or a host of other diseases than were once common. For that matter, much adult sickness is less likely to be life-threatening today, thanks to medical advances and drug discoveries and developments.

Children and grownups alike can eat healthier diets today because fresh fruits and vegetables are available anywhere in America, and there are more safeguards against contaminated food than in the past. Factories generally are safer and the air in our cities (except maybe Los Angeles) is far cleaner than it used to be.

How do we square this with the constant harangue that the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and our entire lifestyle are shortening our lives, killing us – or at least causing us all to live in imminent danger?

It seems that our policymakers – abetted by those pushing pet causes – too often lose their perspectives. They conclude that if some regulation is beneficial – as some obviously is – lots of regulation will be even better. Often they overlook one law they can't amend: the law of unintended consequences. To give just one example, school districts have been required to spend billions of dollars removing asbestos from school buildings. But the asbestos was virtually harmless in the walls, whereas the removal programs can create hazardous asbestos dust.

Regulation is expensive, and paying the cost means the money can't be used for some other, perhaps more beneficial, purpose. Several estimates place the direct and indirect costs of government regulation at more than $560 billion a year.

Even more destructive than the monetary cost of excessive regulation is its psychological cost. It tends to erode that sense of personal responsibility that is vital in a democracy. Just as overprotecting children can result in children who are afraid of any risk, even one accompanying opportunity, or else children who will rebel by taking unjustified risk, overprotecting the rest of us can have the same kind of deleterious effect.

Personal responsibility has had far more to do with the admirable qualities of our nation than has regulation. Our nation is unlikely to continue to thrive if we lose that attribute, and one large part of the population is made up of victims and another large part is out of control.