The dangerous Progressive illusion that government makes us safer

Toddler in poolOne of my favorite expressions is “moral hazard.” I know you’re thinking that this term describes the risk of exposing innocent children to pot-smoking prostitutes, but it actually refers to a very different topic.

I first came across the term “moral hazard” in a Commentary Magazine article by James K. Glassman, who was then arguing against the promises in the as-yet-unpassed Obamacare. (Depending on the number of Commentary Magazine articles you’ve read lately, this might be behind a pay-wall.) Here’s Glassman’s quick-and-dirty definition:

When someone insures you against the consequences of a nasty event, oddly enough, he raises the incentives for you to behave in a way that will cause the event. So if your diamond ring is insured for $50,000, you are more likely to leave it out of the safe. Economists call this phenomenon “moral hazard,” and if you look around, you will see it everywhere. “With automobile collision insurance, for example, one is more likely to venture forth on an icy night,” writes Harvard economist Richard Zeckhauser. “Federal deposit insurance made S&Ls more willing to take on risky loans. Federally subsidized flood insurance encourages citizens to build homes on flood plains.”

We all intuitively recognize the truth behind moral hazard.  When we’re driving in a car so safe it’s the passenger equivalent of an armored car, we take more risks in terms of speed and lane changes than we would in a tinny old Ford. Even as we crow about being less vulnerable to injury, we’re suddenly more likely to cause a crash. And here’s the problem: while a sturdy Volvo may well protect us against a fender bender, the fact remains that, once you’re in a crash, all bets are off regarding the likelihood of injury or death. Crashing at 90 miles per hour in your safe car is as likely to kill you cause, or even more likely to do so, than a 40 mile crash in your Mom’s 1984 Toyota.

Despite this reality — despite the fact that we take incredibly dangerous risks if we think we’re somehow “off the hook” for consequences — DemProgs persist in believing that it’s possible to legislate the world into perfect, government-approved safety.  I’ve had a taste of this in my own home although, thankfully, without any consequences more negative than irritation and some possible hearing loss.

When we bought our house, it came complete with a swimming pool that was already old and decrepit when we moved in. We nevertheless managed to keep it going for more than a decade until, finally, the pool gave up the ghost. It was time for a re-do.

As part of the re-do, we were required to obtain a permit from our local town and, of course, to comply with code-mandated safety requirements. The requirements aren’t just against hazards that the ordinary user cannot protect against, such as electrocution from improperly grounded wires, but are also intended to protect children from drowning. As every pro-gun rights activist knows, drowning is among the top accidental child-killers in the U.S.:

Every day, about ten people die from unintentional drowning. Of these, two are children aged 14 or younger. Drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States.

By contrast, guns are responsible for a minute fraction of accidental childhood deaths. Here’s a nice graphic representation of the difference:

Accidental gun deaths

With those risks, all of us want to protect against children drowning accidentally, especially in home pools that are meant to be there for family fun. There are two ways in my town to comply with the code requirements intended to protect children from drowning. First, you can install a fence immediately around the pool. There are some attractive — and extremely expensive — ways to make that happen:

Pool fencing collage

Alternatively, you can fence off your entire yard with a six-foot high fence. We chose the latter option, because most of our yard is already fenced off to keep out deer and coyotes. All that we had to do was to replace a gate that was too short.  Otherwise, it was a pretty minimal effort to comply with code.

Oh, and we had to do one other thing. For the two doors that we have that lead out to the yard, we had to install pool alarms. These are alarms that produce an ear-splitting racket if the door is opened, or left open, without punching a button or two. You can go the expensive route, and have all your doors set to a central system, like an ADT burglar alarm, or you can buy an affordable little DYI package. With this, you put one sensor on the sliding door or window and one sensor on the frame. When the sensors part ways, the alarm goes off.

The alarm is piercing. I was having some problems installing one of them today and, when I was standing right next to it, it made my ears really hurt, as in now, seven hours later, my left ear is hurting and I’m reasonably certain I sustained a small amount of permanent hearing loss.

Having gone through that set-up process, if I actually had small children, I’d go away content that my children are never going to slip out of the house without me knowing.  But no!  That assumption would be dumb!  Dumb! Dumb! Dumb!

Because what I discovered today is that these sliding door guards in no way compensate for watching your children every second of the day to keep them safe. Although I don’t have a very large house, I have a wandering house. It’s not compact, with one story above another, nor is it a single level house. Instead, it’s an unevenly stacked split-level house that staggers drunkenly down a hill. What I discovered when I was struggling to get the damn alarm thing set right is that, while it deafened me (truly) when I was standing right next to it, I couldn’t hear it when I was at the far end of the house.

If I was cooking in the kitchen and my toddler tried to open the door to the pool, I would have known what was going on because I would be on the same level as, and one room away from, the alarm. However, if I was doing the laundry, at the far end of the house . . . no way would I have known that the alarm went off.

Further, to the extent these things rely on batteries, if your batteries fail, you are s**t out of luck. And while I’m sure that some people meticulously replace batteries every three to four months, whether they need it or not, most don’t. That’s why smoke detectors have that incredibly irritating beep-beep-beep signal, which always goes off in the middle of the night, to tell people when the batteries have died. Without that beep-beep-beep, most people would set it and forget it.

So imagine, there I am, a nice young mother with toddler twins. I’ve just put in the new swimming pool and, without any trouble, installed those sliding door alarms. And then I feel safe. I’ve put locks on the cabinets, protectors on the electrical outlets, gates across the stairs and, now, a sliding door alarm between the pool and the house. I’ve protected my darlings against all the known knowns and some of the known unknowns.

What I haven’t factored into all this moral hazard behavior, however, is all the unknown unknowns that are inevitable toddlers and young children: The fences one never thought they could climb, the busy fingers that make mincemeat of electrical outlet covers, and the alerts one doesn’t hear.

There is only one way to protect small children — those little unguided missiles who are all impulse and no control — from harm, and that’s to watch them like a hawk. Everything else is an imperfect crutch at best. If I ever have grandchildren roaming this house, I’m going to watch them closely or truly lock them off, rather than rely on a $40 government-mandated pool alarm to keep them safe.

Today, my very strong feeling is that this code requirement, rather than making children more safe, makes them less safe, because it encourages parental sloth in reliance upon the dubious protection of a cheap piece of electronics.  That’s the problem with so many of the promises the government makes about our safety.  Yes, some things really do matter, like a well-designed freeway or a reinforced housing frame in earthquake country.  A lot of the promises the government makes, though, are illusory.  They tempt us either into risky behavior or into unwarranted carelessness, thereby increasing the dangers we face.

At a fundamental level, when things are within our control, it’s our responsibility to keep our family safe, not the government’s.  I can’t design my own car, so I appreciate having the marketplace offer safety features, but I can make decisions aimed at protecting my child in his own home, whether that means keeping any guns I might own locked up in a safe far from children or keeping an eagle-eye on my children in a home with a swimming pool.

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  • Ymarsakar

    Conditioning children is like training dogs. They don’t particularly understand words or concepts, because they lack the experience to connect the dots. So you introduce physical stimuli to associate concepts and consequences..

    For kids, put them near a body of water, wait for them to drop off and start sinking, then rescue them. Or just push them off yourself.

    If they’re going to try it anyways, might as well do it while you’re good and ready to rescue the stupidity from itself.

    Then if the kid likes water, give it tools on how to swim. Make em learn water’s effect by being in water. And if they fear water, then lead the charge and go into water yourself, then let them watch but stay out. That way they know, water bad unless you’re mom. They start understanding there’s a physical difference, they may not know what difference it is, but they know. And eventually they’ll figure it out.

    When people let their kids receive the authority of the government ,don’t be surprised when they grow up and report you to the IRS for this and the other, and they take your kids away. Government authority is supreme? Let’s see how that is applied.

    I personally had almost drowned in two such instances. Both entered by my own initiative, and gotten out of by my own initiative. I guess that’s part of what makes me dislike “Authority”. Personality starts forming very early.

  • David Foster

    A phenomenon that is a bit like moral hazard is excessive trust in *systems*, to the point that the humans are not allowed to override it, even when such override is called for.

    Several years ago, a Washington Metrorail train departed a station in Rockville, MD. There was a driver in the lead car, but the train was operating under automatic control, as was standard policy. The rails were icy that day, and the driver was aware that the automatic system did not always properly compensate for the longer stopping distances caused by the ice. He requested permission to change to manual operation; this was denied.

    The train slid into the back of a stopped train at the Gaithersburg station, killing the driver.

    Note the implicit hierarchy of knowledge and authority here. It was implicitly assumed that both the system designed…who necessarily had not precise knowledge of the context of a future moment when the system would be in use….and the “controller,” located in an office somewhere in the Metro system…were in a better position to judge than the man on the spot.

    • Ymarsakar

      Those things are generally caused by top down regimes like unions, or liability or fear mechanics that push responsibility to the top because nobody wants to take responsibility for failure at the bottom or middle.

  • Ymarsakar

    “I’m going to watch them closely or truly lock them off”

    You ever wonder why gun owners don’t watch their 8 year olds, even though the 8 year old can shoot .22 caliber rifles and have access to same? And they don’t end up shooting anyone by mistake, ever?

    It’s because of operant conditioning, psychological conditioning. It seems California doesn’t have that perspective or knowledge base. One wonders then, how many fatal gun discharges there are with this kind of attitude.

  • Ron19

    “I can’t design my own car, so I appreciate having the marketplace offer safety features”

    I beat that one when I was about eleven or twelve years old. I designed and built my own automobile from junk my father had in the garage, and then drove it on the street.

  • Matt_SE

    Other examples from the UK:

    – People neglect the elderly, since it is the government’s job to do that. (one they don’t do very well)

    – People neglect their own safety because they “aren’t authorized.” The mindless sheep that stood about after the Lee Rigby murder, waiting for the police to arrive.

    When you persuade a people that they lack agency, the ability to do anything for themselves, this is what you get. How did they lose that agency? The government decided to “help.”

  • David Foster

    An example from the public schools at PJ this morning.


  • Jane Dough 5000

    There’s no nanny state law that hasn’t already been tried somewhere, or hasn’t been in effect for several years. Liberals don’t care about results, only intentions, but a logical mind would explore the data to discover if infant drowning deaths have decreased since this law went into effect, and by how much. Does saving one baby justify hundreds of dollars in additional costs across hundreds of households? Two deaths? Ten? Or if there’s no statistical improvement in infant fatalities, shouldn’t this law be (officially) repealed or (unofficially) ignored?

    Cash for clunkers: did air pollution decrease at all as a result? Outlawing plastic grocery bags: did landfill tonnage decrease?
    Banning public smoking: have previously non-existent second-hand pulmonary disease and death been rendered further obsolete, i.e. is there a statistic less than zero to make me hide my Marlboros?

    In all cases, there’s no follow-up. Intentions are irrelevant. Which can only lead one to conclude it’s less about concern for your welfare, and more about a continuing march to absolute power over our little lives.

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  • Ymarsakar

    The sumptuary laws from aristocracy is a good reference base. Why did the royals declare only purple to be bought and worn by them alone? Is that because there was a limited supply of purple? What about the merchant guilds that could afford to import it and other silks or foreign exotic luxuries? They weren’t allowed to use them or buy them for personal use. Why? Because only the Royals Used Purple.

    Only Al Gore gets to fly in jets. Only Hussein at DC gets to set the air conditioner to his favorite temp, even if that is 30 degrees different to outside.