We all celebrate our freedoms in our constitutional democracy. When we exercise our freedoms many times we take risks. Sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly, unknowingly because we don’t have full information or the wrong information to assess our risk. This brings us to a basic question: Who’s responsible for the consequences of our risky decisions? Are we as individuals totally responsible or is the government responsible for protecting us from some risks? Lets look at some examples. The government requires cigarette packages to have a cancer warning. New pharmaceutical drugs are required to have extensive safety and efficacy tests and to publish known side effects. Food products must include ingredients on the label. The government publishes flood plain maps. The nature of these examples is that the government requires information that effects risk to be published. In cases like these, we, as individuals can freely choose an action but the information that allows us to assess risk is available. In other cases where our choice of action may impact public safety, laws are passed that restrict our behavior. Examples: Speed limits on highways, prohibition of harmful drugs, and blood alcohol limits when driving on public roads.
So the key question is, ‘Who has the burden of the greater responsibility? Government or individual?’ Many complain about a too intrusive government. On the other hand when tragedy strikes many also complain that government did not do what it could have to prevent the tragedy. When it comes to public safety, the answer is easy – governments at all levels must pass laws to protect the public from known risks. While this may seem obvious, we still have major disagreements. Gun control is the most pertinent contemporary example. Despite this the answer to our question is that government has the responsibility, we must continue to encourage our representatives to do their job in this regard.
The case of individual freedom and risk taking is quite different. Individual freedom is a critical tenant in our democracy. If public impact is not involved we can and should enjoy our freedom. Some choices that we make could involve risk that is greater than we expect. We can and should assess risk before undertaking an action. To assess risk we need access to all pertinent information. We, as individual citizens, have the right to expect access to all pertinent information to make an accurate risk assessment for our potential actions. Government already does a lot to ensure that this is the case. When it comes to air, food and water, for example, We enjoy ingredient labels on food products; water testing and reporting by local utilities; air quality alerts in major metropolitan areas. We have hazard warnings at beaches. We have avalanche warnings in mountain ski areas. The list goes on and for the most part we accept and expect these data. But how far should government go. There is no testing of food supplements, for example. We have legalized marijuana but there is no regulation of labeling for potency. Public buildings that contain asbestos must display a warning in some states. The same with unstable buildings in earthquake prone areas.
We have a clear situation where government either publishes or requires other to publish a huge amount of information that enables us to easily assess risk for our individual actions. We as citizens pay for this – bigger government and more expensive products. Most of do not have to think much if at all about the risk associated with our actions. So the question is ‘Are we happy and content with this level of government activity?’ Or would we like to be more independent, pay for less government and less expensive products? I, for one am content.
Photo by Mad City Bastard