Monday, February 12, 2007

Our Looming Purgatory

Over the weekend I was attempting to chip away at some very stubborn paint with my new cordless Dremel rotatory tool. After sensing it was being overburdened, I did the unthinkable and actually checked the owner's manual. While there weren't any specific warnings as to what users should look out for for signs of excessive use, the manual did helpfully advise that using the power tool for dental work was not recommended. Curious, I generously opted to tackle the cavity that's been pestering Gouverneur Morris, my hamster. Results are still pending.

So whence arrives such pervasive, needless warnings? Count it up as another consequence of America's litigious society, says Wally Olson in The Times of London:
Remove Child Before Folding, which takes its title from the warning on a stroller, contains such invaluable safety tips as: do not consult a telephone directory while driving your car (#84); do not use bubble-bag packing as a flotation device (#37); do not use a curling iron while sleeping (#26); and do not eat the toner in your printer cartridge (#10). Nor, unless you are a fish, should you eat or otherwise ingest common forms of fishing tackle, whether it be a barbed three-hook lure (#30) or worms either live or plastic (#49 and 50). ...

The labels, of course, are mostly there because product makers fear lawsuits. The author of the book, Bob Dorigo Jones, heads an anti-litigiousness advocacy group in Michigan and collects these examples by way of an annual contest. Jones says he’s tracked down some of the real-life lawsuits that underlie the warnings, including ones that arose after a man unwisely used a woodworker’s drill to perform self-care dentistry on his own teeth, and after a student jiggled a Coke machine until it tipped over in hopes of getting it to dispense a free drink.
Beyond do-it-yourself dentistry, Olson describes a more fundamental problem underlying the proliferation of inane cautionary directives:
And of course there is a yet more serious side to the matter in that over-warning can have results that are perverse for the cause of safety itself. It buries the two or three meaningful and non-obvious cautions about, say, a prescription drug, among dozens of the boilerplate kind. By inuring the public to warnings, it teaches us to tune them out.
Elsewhere in the widening world of nanny-statism ...

Vermont dreams up new infringements:
Vermont lawmakers are considering a measure that would ban eating, drinking, smoking, reading, writing, personal grooming, playing an instrument, "interacting with pets or cargo," talking on a cell phone or using any other personal communication device while driving. The punishment: a fine of up to $600.

Similar bills are under consideration in Maryland and Texas, and Connecticut has passed one that generically bans any activity that could interfere with the safe operation of a motor vehicle.

Radley Balko says: "Here's a novel idea: Why not ignore what's going on inside the car, and just pull people over and fine them when they drive recklessly?

Jacob Sullum differentiates between the political paternalism practiced by Republicans and Democrats.

And Theodore Dalrymple reports on what Britain's bureaucratic bloat has wrought:

Frank Chalk’s book, It’s Your Time You’re Wasting, tells essentially the same story, this time with regard to education. It surely requires some explanation that, in a country that expends $5,200 a year for 11 years on each child’s education, a fifth of children leave school virtually unable to read or write, let alone do simple arithmetic. It takes considerable organization to achieve so little, especially when the means by which practically all children can be taught to read to a high standard are perfectly well-known. A small local educational authority in Scotland, for example, West Dumbarton, has virtually eliminated illiteracy in children, despite the fact that its population is among the poorest in Scotland, by using simple teaching methods and at an additional cost of precisely $25 per pupil.

In the looking-glass world of modern British public administration, nothing succeeds like failure, because failure provides work for yet more functionaries and confers an ever more providential role upon the government. ...

The beauty of the system is that dependence on expensive failure reaches quite low levels of the administration ... The state has become a vast and intricate system of patronage, whose influence very few can entirely escape. It is essentially corporatist: the central government, avid for power, sets itself up as an authority on everything and claims to be omnicompetent both morally and in practice; and by means of taxation, licensing, regulation, and bureaucracy, it destroys the independence of all organizations that intervene between it and the individual citizen. If it can draw enough citizens into dependence on it, the central government can remain in power, if not forever, then for a very long time, at least until a crisis or cataclysm forces change.

At the very end of the chain of patronage in the British state is the underclass ... Impoverished and degraded as they might be, they are nonetheless essential to the whole system, for their existence provides an ideological proof of the necessity of providential government in the first place, as well as justifying many employment opportunities in themselves. Both Copperfield and Chalk describe with great eloquence precisely what I have seen myself in this most wretched stratum of society: large numbers of people corrupted to the very fiber of their being by having been deprived of responsibility, purpose, and self-respect, void of hope and fear alike, living in as near to purgatory as anywhere in modern society can come.
That's where New York City's headed, if it's not there already.

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