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Week of: February 25, 2001

Smoking Is Bad But Sodomy's Okay?

by F.R. Duplantier

Governments that try to eliminate risk may stifle liberty as well.

"In the past, the law made a distinction between those risks to health and safety that citizens might voluntarily assume and those from which the state should protect them," recalls British philosopher Roger Scruton. "Since every act of protection by the state involves a loss of freedom," he remarks, "lawmakers assumed that only in very special cases should the state expropriate our risk-taking. In matters of public hygiene, where the risks taken by one person also fall upon others, it seemed legitimate for the state to intervene: for example, the state could compel people to maintain standards of cleanliness in public places or to undergo vaccinations against contagious diseases. But it should not forbid a person to consume a certain product, merely because there is a tiny risk to his own physical well-being."

In the current issue of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute, Scruton laments that this traditional approach to risk management is "not the position adopted by our modern legislators, who do their best to remove both the risk and the freedom to run it." He notes, however, "that modern governments are very selective in the risks that they forbid, and that a law forbidding one risk will often coincide with a law permitting another. Several European governments are currently proposing to outlaw smoking in public places at the same time as legalizing marijuana," Scruton reports. He points out that his own British government is "destroying the local slaughterhouses on which our meat farmers depend on the grounds of wholly invented and unproven risks, while lowering the age of consent for homosexual intercourse and censuring as 'homophobic' those who would alert us to the known medical consequences."

When they get into the business of regulating risk, governments "encourage a false sense of security," argues Scruton. "By constantly intervening to save the citizen from self-imposed risk, the legislature creates the impression that everything else is harmless," he explains. "The citizen need take no care over what he does, so long as he respects the surgeon general's warning and buys in the official market. The state is there to guarantee a risk-free life; and, if a risk is not acknowledged by the state, then it doesn't exist." The citizen naturally, but mistakenly concludes that, if his nursemaid government "sees no harm in pornography or 12-hour doses of television each day or promiscuous but protected sex, then there is no harm in them."

Scruton warns that "the state, by taking charge of risk, massively exposes us to it. The real risks," he contends, "are not those that the state forbids but those that it fosters through its ethos of political correctness. These permitted risks are permitted because it is forbidden to forbid them," says Scruton. "To condemn them would be to 'marginalize' some valid 'alternative' and therefore to interfere with some newly invented or discovered 'right.'" That, he concludes, is why "the risks of promiscuity, drug taking, and other habits that short-circuit the rite of passage into adult life are not openly discussed. These practices belong to a culture that has grown under state protection and that is at war with traditional values."


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