Jewish World Review Oct. 18, 2004 / 3 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

Thomas Sowell

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The tyranny of visions, Part III | Nowhere is the tyranny of visions more absolute than with issues involving safety. Attempts to talk about costs, trade-offs or diminishing returns are only likely to provoke safety zealots to respond with something like, "If it saves just one human life, it is worth it!"

That immediately establishes the safety zealot as being on a higher moral plane than those who stoop to consider crass materialistic costs. And being on a higher plane is what a great deal of zealotry is all about.

The vision of zealots is not just a vision of the world. It is a vision of themselves as special people in that world. The down side is that such a heavy ego investment makes reconsideration of the issues highly unlikely. Ego trumps mundane facts or dry logic.

If the recent hurricanes that have swept across the Caribbean and Florida prove anything, it should be that wealth saves many human lives. Deaths from hurricane Jeanne in the Caribbean have been in the thousands while the death toll in Florida was less than a dozen.

The difference is that Florida is far more affluent. Houses there can be built to withstand more stress. Ambulances can rush more people more quickly to better equipped medical facilities. It has been estimated that more than 95 percent of the deaths from natural disasters worldwide occur in the poorer countries.

How does this affect safety issues?

Safety laws and regulations all have costs — not just money outlays but other restrictions that reduce the rate of production of wealth. If wealth is itself one of the biggest lifesavers, costly safety devices cannot automatically be considered justified "if it saves just one human life" when the wealth it forfeits could have saved many lives.

Everything depends on the particular safety rule or device. Some save many lives at small costs and others save few, if any, lives at huge costs.

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Diminishing returns matter as well, though these are seldom taken into account by safety zealots.

Many dangerous impurities can be removed from water or air at costs that virtually everyone will agree are worth it. But there is no such thing as "pure water" or "pure air," so the only real question is how far you want to go in removing impurities — and at what cost.

Impurities that are deadly at high concentrations can become harmless at sufficiently low concentrations. In extremely minute traces, even arsenic has been found to have beneficial effects. But the vision of "pure water" keeps zealots pushing for removing ever more minute traces of ever more questionable impurities, regardless of how much more it costs or how little good it does — if any.

Alcohol takes huge numbers of lives every year, whether in automobile accidents, liver disease or innumerable foolish risks taken while "under the influence." Yet studies show that a very moderate daily intake of alcohol reduces hypertension and the incidence of dementia. Everything depends on how much.

Trade-offs and diminishing returns are not the stuff from which heady visions and dramatic crusades are made. For that you need goals to be reached "at all costs" and a clash between heroes and villains. This appeals to the young and to those who remain adolescents all their lives.

The realities of life force most of us to grow up, whether we want to or not. But for people protected from realities by being born rich, or by having lifetime tenure as academics or federal judges, maturity is optional.

Many of the most extreme safety and environmental crusaders are rich busybodies or academics and their students, and they are often helped by judges whose rulings allow them to violate other people's rights while pursuing their own vision.

The "thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" have become a thousand reasons for lawsuits against those who produce anything that is not "safe."

Nothing is categorically safe. But few things are as dangerous as those who are pursuing a safety vision that ministers to their egos, with the costs being paid by others.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) To comment please click here.


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