What’s Safe?

by Don Boudreaux on October 27, 2009

in FDA, Man of System, Nanny State, Regulation, Risk and Safety

Here’s a letter that I sent yesterday to the Los Angeles Times:

You want e-cigarettes banned until and unless tests “determine whether they are indeed safe” (“Smoking out e-cigarettes,” Oct. 26).

“Safe” according to whom?

You write as if “safe” is an objectively determinable and unique fact, such as whether or not your newspaper’s paid circulation exceeds 500,000 or whether or not your sister is pregnant.  But “safe” is not objective in this way.  Because no product is 100 percent certain never to cause even the slightest harm (or 100 percent certain to cause harm), the question “Is this product safe?” has no correct single answer.  It has correct answers as varied as the number of that product’s potential users.  No product is “safe” or “unsafe” in the abstract.

Perhaps your tolerance for risk is higher than mine.  Perhaps the pleasure I get from using a product is less than yours.  If so, should I be permitted to prevent you from using that product because, for me, the product is insufficiently safe?  My evaluation of the product’s safety is correct only for me, not for you.  And matters don’t change if I’m a government official.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

I add that my evaluation of the product’s safety is not only correct only for me and for no one else, but it is correct only for me today.  Tomorrow — if my circumstances or preferences change — that evaluation might be incorrect, although it is correct today.

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{ 18 comments }

Randy October 27, 2009 at 3:28 pm

Don,

You make the common mistake of believing that the choice is yours to make. You are no longer an individual. The powers that be have declared that you belong to “society” now, and because they claim the right to speak for “society”, they therefore speak for you.

Anonymous October 27, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Well put. As a skydiver, twice injured in botched (but completely legal) landings, I can only laugh at the safety police hysterical over e-cigarettes. Look for the makers of far more toxic, conventional cigarettes to join the hysterical chorus.

Anonymous October 27, 2009 at 4:13 pm

As a lifetime mountaineer I expect my avocation by choice to be banned at any time by the nanny staters.

pauliv October 27, 2009 at 4:21 pm

You laugh, but are activities that aren’t considered “safe” by the nannies in chief going to result in higher costs/premiums under the apparently inevitable socialized medicine system? Or will those activities simply be outlawed? I am thinking of things like riding motorcycles, rock climbing (see above), smoking, or simply watching too much tv. Surely somebody from our all-caring gov’t will come along and make these case that since the gov’t is footing the bill for the medical care, we shouldn’t be able to participate in such “unsafe” activites.

SteveO October 27, 2009 at 5:03 pm

Well put, Pauliv.

I had this same thought. Although the argument could go either way. Maybe we should “encourage” activities that reduce lifespan, and therefore lifetime costs. Or maybe we should “discourage” activities that increase cost, but “encourage” drastic activities likely to severely cut lifespan.

The specific strategic and tactical moves and arguments can get absurd; which points to the essential premise, “Who has the moral domain to make these decisions?”

The answer should always be the individual (and/or those the individual CHOOSES to associate with), and free markets are the best (I didn’t say perfect) mechanism to allow that.

Anonymous October 27, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Can?

Kevin S. October 27, 2009 at 5:28 pm

“Maybe we should ‘encourage’ activities that reduce lifespan, and therefore lifetime costs”

Only for low earners. I would think that the State would need the income from high earners. i.e. “Yes Mr. Jones, I realize you have made a fortune and paid a significant portion of in into the healthcare of the nation, but we just can’t allow you to fly your own airplane.”

SteveO October 27, 2009 at 9:13 pm

LOL. Of course.

Anonymous October 27, 2009 at 11:43 pm

In the sci-fi movie “Logan’s Run,” to avoid the drain on society, all persons participated in a “lottery” when they turned thirty. The lottery was for life extension, but nobody won. All people except top government officials were exterminated at age 30. Children were raised in creches, so there was no concern about orphans. We seem to be taking steps in that direction.

Anonymous October 27, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Think of the societal costs of your risk-taking!

You are a burden in waiting.

Anonymous October 27, 2009 at 5:07 pm

Imagine time and motion studies for every human activity; that is certainly one possible dystopian possibility we are headed towards.

Randy October 27, 2009 at 6:04 pm

pauliv,

The military already does this. High risk activities by military members must be reported and approved. The logic is much as you suggest. They have a financial stake in you, so they have a right to judge and control your off duty activities.

Anonymous October 28, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Since the military is one of the most socialist of organizations, this seems both illustrative and appropriate.

Anonymous October 28, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Since the military is one of the most socialist of organizations, this seems both illustrative and appropriate.

JohnK October 27, 2009 at 6:20 pm

>>Surely somebody from our all-caring gov’t will come along and make these case that since the gov’t is footing the bill for the medical care, we shouldn’t be able to participate in such “unsafe” activites.

What about making the case that since government is footing the bill for medical care, that it is the duty of government to “cure” preventable diseases resulting from bad diet and insufficient exercise?

What about making the case that it should be a crime to disobey the orders of a doctor?

Anonymous October 28, 2009 at 12:33 am

The truthful answer will probably be decided by determining whether or not the engagers of such activities are likely to vote, and if so, will forbiding their activities result in enough votes to affect an election.The cynical answer should be whether or not accidents — while engaged in these particular activities — result in frequent fatality. Because if they typically result in fatality more so than just injury (serious or otherwise), it may make sense to allow the deaths in order to possibly change the future Social Security benefits of that person and their family and also trigger taxable events to boost revenue to Leviathan.

RL October 27, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Perhaps the other point is stress is “safe compared to what”? Here the govt. is prohibiting e-cigs because they’re not proven safe, so people presumably will instead continue to smoke regular tobacco cigs…Does the FDA really think e-cigs are LESS safe than regular ones?

Anonymous October 28, 2009 at 3:18 am

It is insane to generalize a risk-benefit analysis. You put it very well Don.

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