Tuesday, January 30, 2007

O circumspect new world, that has so many armoured cherubs in't!

Chris Selley observes:
On the subject of a law mandating helmets for tobogganers, I've been asked "why not?" a few times since last week. "Why?" is the far more pertinent question — for any legislation, really ...
Well put. Problem is: it takes a grown-up to recognize this.

The breeders of the last generation then--to the extent that they allowed Chris (and, indeed, me) to go tobogganing, not only without a helmet, but almost invariably without supervision too--must have been grown-ups ... Of course the fact that their progeny (excepting the particular persons just mentioned) seem willing to go to almost any lengths to avoid making that transition themselves works against this conclusion ... But we'll leave that for now, lest it go the inevitable road of reductio ad absurdum.

I should just like to note that helmet laws--and seatbelt laws, and smoking laws, and all their nanny-state-imposed brethren--do not find their motivation in an enlightened--sorry--progressive altruism. As though they were building upon the achievements of our forebears. We bundle our children into full body casts, to as close as we can manage to the age of majority, for the simple reason that we are bottom-to-top terrified of lawsuits; what I like to call therapeutic litigation. Made, I hasten to add, so popular (in its "civil" form anyway) by those same forebears.

But I think Selley has touched on something rather crucial in his distinction between the questions "why" and "why not"--and which of the two the adults of this generation are more likely to ask.

For, you see, it is in the nature of the question "why not" that it follow only an inductive course. That is, it asks only if the law does any harm in and of itself. Does the wearing of helmets pose any sort of threat to the wearer? No? Then why not?

It is, to the contrary, in the nature of the question "why" that it proceed deductively: that the specific law's merit be determined as it proves itself through a broad application. The person who asks "why" in the case of this helmet business will, then, not only discover that such a law might eventually require that pedestrians where helmets every time they negotiate a set of icy steps or cross a road but, likely, they will also realize that by making the necessarily spontaneous activity of children a matter of formal (and formally enforced) process, that the children just won't bother in the first place. (Lawsuits pitting child against parent for criminal neglect of their health to follow some few years later.)*

Treating symptoms is great fun and everything, but hardly the provenance of grown-ups. I don't want to be one of those slippery slope guys or anything, but if we're not careful we'll have schools making it a punishable offense for kids to talk at lunchtime for fear that one of them should choke without a supervising adult overhearing it.

*Has it occurred, I wonder, to Councillors Mario Ferri, Sandra Racco, etc. that their proposed legislation will also make it illegal for children who can't afford a Jofa to take part in the one winter pastime that, until now, knew no boundaries of class?