Freer is Safer
by John Semmens
From Number 42 - February 1990
One of the most common delusions of our age is that government is enforcing
regulations that will actually help improve safety. In the wave of deregulation
that hit the economy in the last decade, many obsevers have found comfort in
the knowledge that safety was not one of the components in the loosening of government
controls. Oversight of safety was routinely retained as a responsibility of the
Why anyone would place such confidence in government for the promotion of safety
has always been a mystery to me. Granted, the protection of the public's safety
has historically been a primal justification for the existence of government.
But why should we expect government to be better at this job than it has been
at the multitude of other tasks it habitually bungles? Let's face it, bureaucracy
and quality workmanship are far from synonmous.
The only logical explaination for the great trust in public sector regulation
of safety must be that it is an unexamined article of faith. Examining this faith
is the major purpose of Professor Aaron Wildavsky's recently published book:
Searching For Safety (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1998).
The concept of outlawing hazards via legislative or administrative means is premised
on the belief that we know what is safe and what is not. What if we don't know?
The idea that we may not know what is safe may strike may people as ludicrous.
Surely, we can identify hazards like motor vehicle collisions, toxic chemicals,
dangerous workplaces, and the like. However, identifying hazards is only part
of the answer. If we are to deal with them, it is even more critical that we
know whether they can be prevented and at what cost. For example, we could prevent
traffic victims by prohibiting motion. Obviously, imposing total immobility would
be too costly a remedy. At what point between complete immobility and runaway
breakneck speed do we attain an optimal balance between safety and utility?
The very real question of costs cannot be dodged by the all-too-common cliche
"that as long as one life is saved, it's worth it." The costs incurred
by a specific safety measure consume resources that could have been used for
other, perhaps more cost-effective, safety-enhancing measures. One effective
means for improving safety is to promote economic growth. Greater material wealth
is a direct path to better health. If wealthier is healthier, then the diversion
of scarce resources to relatively inefficient attempts at imposing safety will
actually end up costing rather than saving lives.
The contemporary political environment has fostered a patholigical obsession
with risk aversion. The rules aimed at "erring on the side of safety"
are impeding the technological and economic progress that have been the key to
increasing human longevity. Fear of the unknown results in cumbersome restraints
on research and experimentation.
Venturing, experimenting, and risking are all activities ill-suited to the
public sector. As the role of the public sector expands, there is apt to be less
"venturing" and more "controlling." The gains that could
be made through progress will be retarded or foregone entirely. Human beings
will be less safe than they otherwise could have been.
Not suprisingly, it turns out, once again, that the free market appears most
conducive to human health and well-being. The decentralized decision-making characteristic
of private enterprise means varied ventures will embark upon divergent paths.
Many of these ventures, of course, will fail. Others will learn from these mistakes.
Knowledge, the foundation of progress, will be produced. By the increments of
may trials, the errors will be sorted out from the successes. Thus, the diversification
inherent in the market approach to problem-solving has the effect of reducing
the aggregate risk to society.
In the long-run, results weigh heavily in favor of the marketplace. Open, market-oriented
enviroments produce longer-lived and healthier individuals. The search for safety
brings us back to the enduring truth that freedom works.