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by Viv Forbes, 6/4/1992, from his private archives

A new source of power … called gasoline has been produced by a Boston engineer. Instead of burning the fuel under a boiler, it is exploded inside the cylinder of an engine … The dangers are obvious. Stores of gasoline in the hands of people interested primarily in profit would constitute a fire and explosive hazard of the first rank. Horseless carriages propelled by gasoline might attain speeds of 14 or even 20 miles per hour. The menace to our people of vehicles of this type hurtling through our streets … would call for prompt legislative action even if the military and economic implications were not so overwhelming … In addition, the development of this new power may displace the use of horses, which would wreck our agriculture …

The above was reported in the US Congressional Record in 1875. Luckily, no one took any notice and no harm was done.

But the coercive do-gooders are still with us. In 1979, Mr Einfield, the champion of consumer safety in NSW, threatened to legislate against self-service petrol stations because they were “too dangerous and too heavy to use, especially for women drivers”.

To some extent, Mr Einfield was cynically using the smokescreen of “safety” to featherbed his union mates. But he was also reflecting a modern mania for safety at all costs.

Examples abound.

A great debate now rages about compulsory pool fences. There is undoubtedly a problem with toddlers drowning but this is caused by unsupervised children who can’t swim.

The proposed legislation will not help to solve either problem. In fact, it will aggravate them. Fences will give parents a false sense of security. With less supervision there will be more accidents of all kinds — not just drownings, but road accidents, getting kidnapped, getting lost, etc. Secondly, fences will not teach kids to swim. Again the tendency will be to assure parents that early swimming lessons are unnecessary because all pools are fenced.

Safety, like environmentalism, has become a tool of the anti-capitalist crusade. As Paul Johnson said:

Uniting as it does a wide range of health and consumer pressure groups, animated as it is by a quasi-mystical vision of total purity, safety provides as unrivalled emotional outlet for educated, middle-class opinion. It has become the leading, progressive good cause of our day, combining fear of technology, hatred of capitalism, the itch to interfere and the eternal nanny principle.

The anti-growth, anti-multinational, pro-union, pro- bureaucracy theme of this group is quite distinctive, and reveals more concern for ideology than for safety.

The high priests of this new religion have brought us child proof lids (which fumble fingered parents can’t open), compulsory health and accident insurance, costly job licensing, harassment of alternative medicine, prescriptions for analgesics, censorship, gun controls, rigid and costly air traffic regulations, fluoride in our water and complex and compulsory product standard laws.

In Norway, the nutritional totalitarians have “an integrated policy on nutrition, food and agriculture” whose aim is to forcibly change the diet of the people in the hope of reducing coronary disease. In the USA, it is illegal to sell even a ladder or a sledge hammer unless it bears a label which warns of the danger of misuse. In Australia, politicians discuss whether prescriptions for vitamins, governors for motor cars and licences for baby sitters should be made compulsory. World wide, governments have decided to eliminate smokers at any cost.

Everyone is in favour of better health, safer work places and risk free drugs. But there is no free lunch. It is a dangerous delusion to believe that improvements in safety can be achieved at zero cost.

It is also a delusion to believe that a bungle of bureaucrats can discover the correct balance of safety and cost for every human activity. Safety is a relative thing which every individual may value differently. For example, to a refugee in the South China Sea, the absence of mandatory safety flares in his escape vessel is of zero consequence. He would trade all such luxuries for an extra can of drinking water or a pistol to protect his family from pirates. On the other hand, the millionaire yachtsman on Sydney Harbour will spare no expense to ensure his Sunday safety.

Similarly, the worker with six kids and no house is chiefly concerned to find any roof he can afford. He is not overly concerned whether or not his shack is built to conform with government building regulations. But the comfortable executive is happy to pay for secondary needs such as safety and aesthetics.

In both of these examples, enforcement of uniform standards of safety would deprive the poor man of something he values more than added safety and would not satisfy the rich man. Who then sets the standard and how is it set?

The morbid preoccupation of governments with safety at any cost has another perverse consequence. History shows that improvements in health and safety are closely correlated with economic progress. Prosperity, not legislation, produces safety.

The pioneering which precedes progress is always more dangerous than doing things in the old ways. Is pioneering to be outlawed because of its risk? Where would we be if the Seamen’s Union had prevented Captain Cook from leaving England without a decent map and accurate navigation equipment? Would Reg Ansett’s first plane have been cleared for takeoff by DCA? What if Leichhardt, Kennedy, Forrest and the squatters had sat in Botany Bay waiting for government surveyors and road builders? Will the pioneers of today be free to explore the mysteries of genetics? Where is our future if compulsory safety and regulated security smothers the urge to innovate and explore?

We are becoming a bunch of sissies. Maybe it is better for the future evolution of the race if persistent glue sniffers and metho drinkers are allowed to learn from experience. If we try to outlaw foolishness, we merely breed complacency, negligence, boredom and folly. All attempts to use legislation to solve non-criminal problems will achieve perverse results.

All attempts at compulsory safety rest on the assumption that individuals are not competent to run their own lives and should not be allowed to choose risky options. To some government nannies, we are all government property. For example, in 1990, Paul Greene, a mechanical engineer, was prevented by the Victorian Marine Board from attempting to drive his amphibious Volkswagen across Bass Straight. (Foolish fellow thought it was his life and his car.)

Safety is an important consideration, but it is not the only consideration. And there is no single collective solution to the right amount of safety. Safety will be improved by organisations who value their brand names or their reputations as good suppliers or good employers. It will be published by voluntary co-operatives like the National Safety Council, The Master Builders Association, the insurance companies, the unions and the consumer and media watchdogs. Its value will be weighed and assessed every day by thousands of individuals with many desires and few resources. Government compulsion has no place in the area of safety except to combat contagious diseases, to ensure there is disclosure of abnormal risk, and to curb breach of contract, fraudulent claims or deceptive practices.

Life is an uncertain experience, but this is the essence of adventure and discovery. The only way to eliminate all risk, is to shoot yourself. Colin Fletcher in The Complete Walker puts it beautifully. He says:

[I]f you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone either — or, for that matter, don’t go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love, or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs. Wear wool next to the skin. Insure every good and chattel you possess against every conceivable contingency the future might bring, even if the premiums half-cripple the present. Never cross an intersection against a red light, even when you can see that all the roads are clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time.

(in order of appearance on Economics.org.au)
  1. Lang Hancock's Five Point Plan to Cripple Australia
  2. Put Windmills in National Parks
  3. Magnifying National Disasters
  4. Please Don't Feed the Animals
  5. Buy Birdsville Made?
  6. The Economics of Flood Risk
  7. Touring Bureaucrats
  8. Our slip-shod laws to blame
  9. Why Wind Won't Work
  10. A Profusion of "Prices"
  11. R.I.P. Ron Kitching - pioneer, explorer, author, family man, entrepreneur, scholar
  12. The Carbon Pollution Lie
  13. Closing Down Australia
  14. The Anti-Industry
  15. The Pyramid Builders
  16. Carbon Tax Bribery
  17. Crown Monopolies
  18. Carbon Tax Job Losses
  19. What Next, a Tax on Water?
  20. Carbon Health Warnings Coming Soon
  21. Growth Mythology
  22. The Tax Collection Industry
  23. Propaganda Puts Paid to Proof
  24. The Milk of the Welfare Teat is Watered Down
  25. "Crops for Cars" as Bad as Everlasting Drought
  26. Poll speech sets record
  27. The Emissions Trading Casino
  28. The Contract Society
  29. A Model Ministry
  30. The Five Point Plan to kill the economy with High Cost Electricity
  31. Put a Sunset Clause in the Carbon Tax
  32. Stuck on Red
  33. Time to Butcher "Aussie Beef"
  34. Carbon Tax Lies and Bribes
  35. The Middle of the Road
  36. United against taxes
  37. Call for Govt administrator
  38. Property & Prosperity
  39. "The Science is Settled" BUT Durban Climate Summit Not Cancelled
  40. No End to Fuelish Policies?
  41. The Right to Discriminate
  42. Sell the CES
  43. Free Water Costs Too Dam Much
  44. Creating Unemployment
  45. Viv Forbes Wins 1986 Adam Smith Award
  46. 1985 news item on Tax Payers United, Centre 2000 and the Australian Adam Smith Club
  47. Having the numbers is not the same as having the truth
  48. Who's Who in the Workers Party
  49. David Russell Leads 1975 Workers Party Queensland Senate Team
  50. Caught in a welfare whirlpool
  51. Global Warming Season
  52. Mining in Queensland, Past, Present and Future
  53. WEATHER IS USUALLY UNUSUAL
  54. Political branch formed
  55. Ron Manners on the Workers Party
  56. Viv Forbes on Libertarian Strategy and the Constant Resources Myth
  57. The New Brisbane Line?
  58. Carbon Lies
  59. We Mine to Live
  60. Save the taxpayer
  61. Solving Three Canberra Problems
  62. Vested Interests in the Climate Debate
  63. Carbon Tax Retrospective?
  64. Carbon Price Propaganda Taxes the Truth
  65. Don't Burn Food for Motor Spirit - Feed People not Cars
  66. Two Big Climate Taxes
  67. Greens Rediscover Hydrogen Car
  68. Atlas of Australia
  69. Shutting Out The Sun
  70. Safety Mania
  71. Coal - Sinking in the Swamps
  72. Hobbling the Competition
  73. Cubic Currency Coming
  74. "Dear Government"
  75. Viv Forbes mocks Flannery in 1988
  76. What we have is not a drug problem but a drug law problem
  77. Smoking, Health and Freedom
  78. Privatise Now! while they are still worth something
  79. The Electoral Act should allow voters to choose "none of the above"
  80. The New Federalism
  81. Sunset for Solar Subsidies
  82. The mouse will roar
  83. The Road to Homelessness
  84. Planning & Prosperity
  85. Viv Forbes and Jim Fryar vs Malcolm Fraser in 1979
  86. Quip, Quote, Rant and Rave: four of Viv Forbes' letters to the editor in The Australian in 1979
  87. Australia's First Official Political Party Poet Laureate: The Progress Party's Ken Hood in 1979
  88. Our homeless regulation refugees
  89. Progress Party and Workers Party lead The Australian
  90. Viv Forbes in 1978 on loss-making government, the Berlin Wall and misdirected blasts of hot-air
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