Our society increasingly demands and enforces safety. Safety from accidents, conflict, diseases, but also safety from our own ignorance and stupidity as much as those of our neighbours. Safety has become a modern virtue, as dogmatic and unassailable to my generation as “godliness” was to my grandmother’s. We embraced it to the point that we do not see it as a subjective value, something that one culture may embrace and another reject, both with good reasons. The Vikings didn’t preach or seek safety… But clearly that is a sign of our own superiority.
We haven’t just made safety a personal virtue, though. We have also accepted the “fact” that personal safety choices, choices that affect nobody but the person who makes then, can and should be made a public issue.
The progression is both logical and frightening. For instance, climbing cliffs is dangerous – we know this because of the number of accidents it causes and their impact on the people involved. In order to inform people of these dangers, we put up warning signs. You never know: someone may not be aware that even seemingly solid rock can let you down, or of the existence of gravity. Some people “ignore” the signs, though, inasmuch as they still choose to climb. The fact that one may make a conscious decision to engage in a risky or difficult activity specifically because it is risky and difficult apparently escapes a certain personality: those people must be ignorant or stupid for being willing to take that risk! We have to protect them from themselves! So we make cliff climbing illegal. If pushed, we may justify it by highlighting its social costs, in terms of human capital (as if that capital belonged by society at large, rather than by each individual), the risk to third parties (e.g. emergency services), or actual resources, particularly in nations with social health care. Most of these rationalisations are little more than excuses: you could achieve the same by informing climbers that they will not be rescued, or that they will be billed for any resulting costs, and leaving them to their own devices.
But no: we cannot possibly abandon these people to their own choices, because we have a social responsibility… And there is when, as far as I’m concerned, we cross the line into totalitarianism.
Ask me not to do anything that puts unwilling third parties in unreasonable danger, and I will comply. That is a matter of public safety. Inform me of dangers I might not be aware of, and I will thank you. That is a matter of education. But demanding that I refrain from an activity that affects nobody but myself or willing third parties because it is not safe enough by your standards? That is totalitarianism: public prodnosing into private matters.
And we do it to ourselves. It isn’t the result of an evil cabal, or some dictator. We do it to ourselves by farming out the responsibility for our safety and welfare as if we were children or imbeciles. We do it every time we sue because someone did not step in to protect us from our own lack of awareness, ignorance, or plain stupidity. We can’t have it both ways: if someone else can be made responsible for the costs of our shortcomings, then they are also responsible for controlling our behaviour.