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Coddled

Posted By Russ Roberts On April 7, 2011 @ 11:54 pm In Complexity & Emergence,Uncategorized | Comments Disabled

Entering the economics department today I saw the following notice on the front door of the building:

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When I first saw it, I noticed that it was referencing a test of the fire alarm system. I presumed that meant there would be some alarms going off and not to worry–it’s just a test. But then I looked more closely. The sign was saying that there would be tests of the fire alarm system and during the three day period of the testing process, there would be no alarms available. So in case there was a fire, be sure to get the heck out of the building. EVACUATE THE AREA! Good idea. In other words, don’t wait for an alarm, there isn’t going to be one.

At first glance, this seems like a remarkably paternalistic and condescending instruction. In the event of fire, flee! Did the designers of the sign think that I would smell smoke or see flames and think, well, I don’t hear an alarm, so there must not be a fire? How stupid do they think I am? But maybe it wasn’t so insulting. Maybe after your sensitivity is deadened by constant coddling, you need signs like this.

I remember being in Chile and having a miserable cold or flu, I went into a drugstore in search of something to make me feel better. As I struggled with trying to read the labels, I realized that Chile’s FDA, if there was one, was probably not like the American FDA. In America, the problem with the stuff you can buy in the drugstore without a prescription is so benign, the problem is whether it will have any impact on you. Anything other than Tums or aspirin requires a prescription. In another country, however, there could be some pretty powerful drugs available over the counter. Having been coddled by the FDA, I was unprepared for the exciting but scary world of potentially real drugs that I could choose freely.

Similarly, I hear people say that were we to privatize social security or better, eliminate it, most people (meaning people other than the person speaking) would not have the financial sophistication to invest their own money. Could be true. For someone with very little discretionary income (a problem partly caused by a payroll tax of over 15% to fund other people’s social security and medicare) why should they develop any financial sophistication. Give them the opportunity to invest their own money and they will have an incentive to get educated.

We have a natural incentive to take care of ourselves. But if someone takes care of us, our impulse toward self-preservation lapses and gets rusty. Pay for my losses and I’ll be less prudent. Cleanse the drugstore of anything remotely likely to have a side effect and I’ll be less prudent. Get rid of the alarm system and maybe I’ll hesitate to run from fire. Well, not really on that last one. But maybe I’ll smell smoke and assume that if the alarm hasn’t gone off, it must be someone misusing the microwave. So maybe it’s not a bad idea to let people know the alarm system is on vacation.

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