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What’s Safe?

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.

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.