What fun I had, standing on a machine much like a scale and looking at the bones of my feet lit in green fluorescence. Fortunately, my children never could indulge in such whimsy. These shoe store x-ray fluoroscope machines have long been banned as a health hazard.
I also enjoyed my father’s De Soto. Seat belts? Unheard of. Shatterproof glass? No such thing. Air bags? They hadn’t been invented yet. Now you can’t buy a car without these items.
The number of once acceptable activities now outlawed is large and New York Department of Health’s ruling this month added to the list of activities that put children at “significant risk of injury” by bringing indoor day camps under the same regulations that govern outdoor day camps. In addition to horseback riding and rock climbing, red rover, tetherball, kickball, wiffleball and capture the flag have been deemed “potentially dangerous.”
Three objections have been raised to the new regulation. The economic argument comes from those who say it will be costly for small indoor day care camps, which will have to pay $200 for a state permit.
The second objection comes from the news followers who see the regulation as so patently silly that it deserves no more than ridicule.
The sustained objection is philosophical. As articulated by Lane Filler, a member of Newsday’s editorial board, this is “this is a great example of how, in the long run, nanny-state liberalism becomes a snake that must eat its own tail to survive. . . . We demand government make our lives perfectly safe—and leave us alone. We have to pick one or the other. Insist on both, and we end up forcing officials to parse the relative safety of boccie, ga-ga and spud. It’s little wonder, faced with such impossible tasks, that steal the bacon becomes the only game with much appeal.”
Filler is right to point to the tendency of government to abuse its power. This is why we have constitutional protections and need more transparency in all organizations that affect our lives—corporations, as well as government.
But that isn’t to say that laws that limit our behavior are never justified. Government does have a legitimate role in helping to protect us. I wish that fluoroscopes had been banned before I routinely stepped on them (my mother thought they were perfectly safe), and I am glad that my father never had an accident in his De Soto and even happier that airbags and shatterproof glass are standard when my wife had her accident a few years ago.
How far the government should reach to protect people needs to be judged by particular cases. To dismiss all regulations as “nanny-state” intrusion is a position that few would accept.
The basic argument used by those opposed to the “nanny state” is that government should stay clear of regulating self-regarding behavior. ‘If it affects only me, keep your hands off,’ is the basic point.
But much of our behavior affects others and we have a duty to make sure that they aren’t unduly harmed by us. So I am responsible for injuries suffered by a person hurt on my property, if it hasn’t been kept properly; smoking is banned in public spaces because secondhand smoke is harmful; restaurants are subject to health inspections because people get sick from contaminated food.
Safety regulations need to balance a number of factors, including the possibility of injury, the seriousness of the injuries caused, the cost of implementing the safety measure and how invasive enforcement would have to be. This is the discussion that should be taking place now around whether to ban smoking in a car or home when a child is present, for example.
Society can’t protect against all contingencies and it shouldn’t. Everything we do is risky, including stepping out of bed and standing in the sun. We have to evaluate each particular on its own merits.
It is easy to have readymade answers, a one size fits all approach to problems. No thinking is required when you start knowing the answer—government regulation is bad in all cases. This way of looking at social issues has the virtue of consistency; it has the vice of being a foolish consistency, “the hobgoblin of little minds,” as said by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The rest of us will have to use our discretion—‘yes’ to banning fast foods in schools, for example, but ‘no’ to banning red rover in day camps. This is the use of judgment, a component without which there is no ethics.