Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Safety first?

The primary school across the street has a sign up that reads, "Have a safe summer." Now, I've got nothing against safety, but is that the best thing they could wish you? How about a happy summer, or a good summer, or a fulfilling summer? Somewhere along the line, safety became the highest good (especially for children), and everything else is a matter of personal choice. The state won't do anything to keep kids in traditional two-family households, but God forbid if you should fail to strap them into a carseat until they are 7 years old, or let them jump on a trampoline without proper safety precautions, or try to let them play with any of a vast array of toys that have been recalled because they pose some sort of safety risk.

Just to be clear: I don't think the government should be in the business of telling families how to raise kids. If parents want to get divorced, I think it is unfortunate, but I don't oppose government sanctioning of it. What I don't understand is why that should be so uncontroversial, yet hardly anyone blinks when the government tries to regulate things that affect children far less than divorce. The death of a child is always a tragedy, but it will always happen, regardless of what kind of precautions we take. The question is, where do we set a limit on a child's safety, the limit beyond which parents are not allowed to transgress? Is it enough to say that everyone agrees that safety is important, whereas moral concerns are a matter of opinion? In a way, I think that this is actually the cause of our society's safety obsession: because we aren't allowed to say anything about morality, our child-protecting sensibilities have all been displaced onto physical safety issues. But clearly not everyone views safety the same way -- if we did, we wouldn't need laws about it. If a child seat decreases the chance of a child's death by .001%, should we require all children to use them? Why not require that houses be built without stairs, that families with toddlers be forbidden to have knives, and let's get rid of those dangerous bathtubs while we're at it -- the kids can all get sponge baths to be on the safe side. If we could demonstrate that eliminating stairs would improve safety more than car seats, would people insist on it? Of course not, because it seems like an absurd intrusion into people's lives. In my view, however, car seat laws are no less absurd. Parents take chances with their kids all the time; any one of a hundred things could cause serious injury or death, but we leave it to them to decide which risks are worth taking.

The ironic thing is that some aspects of parenting are demonstrably more damaging to children than lack of child seats: for example, being raised by divorced parents. Oh, they may be less likely to die (by some tiny fraction of a percent), but they will be very likely to grow up less well adjusted, less educated, and earn less than their non-carseat-using peers whose parents remain married. If anyone were to put the matter as a straight either-or -- would you rather take this chance of a child's death in a car accident, or this enormously greater chance of a child's maldevelopement through a disrupted home life -- any sane person would take the physical risk. Again, I don't favour telling parents not to get divorced. In my view, the state exists (in civil matters, anyway) to regulate agreements among people, not to tell people what agreements they have to make. To me, however, this is all the more evidence that the state should stay far away from telling parents how to raise their children, even on what may seem to some self-absorbed individuals as the uncontroversial question of personal safety. Not because safety is unimportant, or because we should take no notice at all of child abuse; but because there are higher goods than safety, and because we have gotten to the point of regulating more and more trivial things that can easily be left to individual discretion without any risk of a mass destruction of life.

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