I wrote my initial contribution before those by James A. Swartz and Anthony Green were posted. Their essays confirm a central point that I was trying to make—that the primary impetus for child safety does not come from meddling officials, but rather from private advocates, like Swartz and Green, whose campaigns may call for more governmental action. Earlier campaigns of this sort deserve credit for all those social policies that dramatically cut the death toll among children. So far as I can tell, everyone involved in this conversation approves of improving the milk supply, promoting vaccinations and antibiotics, and so on—policies that probably prevented something like a hundred million Americans from dying in childhood over the last century.
However, I do feel that there is a question of proportion. Talking about the costs and benefits of policies requires facing this. Anthony Green writes, “It is not right to say that auto crashes … [are] a smaller problem. Car crashes have been and remain the number one cause of death [among young people].” The second sentence is quite correct, but the first one is false. In 1966, there were 50,894 traffic fatalities; in 2010, there were 32,788. The actual number of deaths fell, even though the U.S. population grew by 55 percent, the number of drivers more than doubled, and the number of miles driven tripled. The number of deaths per million miles driven dropped from 5.5 to 1.1. Traffic fatalities are a smaller problem. Why? Lots of reasons—safer cars, safer roads, better emergency medical care, and policies to rein in drivers who are teens, elderly, or intoxicated.
I suppose we could cut traffic fatalities to nearly zero—establishing a national 5 mph speed limit might do the trick. But we don’t do that because there are tradeoffs. We accept that being able to travel at the speeds we find convenient will lead to some deaths. Obviously, we continue to try to reduce the death toll, but without destroying the principal benefits of automobility.
Which returns us to the matter of proportion. In general, advocates go after the biggest dangers first—smallpox, dangerous milk, and such. Inevitably, as those policies succeed, the targets become smaller, and the tradeoffs more apparent. While there were initial fears about the safety of smallpox vaccines, their effectiveness soon overwhelmed most opposition. To take a more recent and less obvious case, people with arthritis grumbled about child-resistant caps on aspirin bottles enough that an accommodation was reached (I don’t know if this is still true, but manufacturers used to be allowed to sell one size of bottle without a safety cap).
If we’re now at a point where smart people disagree about the need for the next safety measure, I consider that evidence that earlier campaigns have addressed most of the easy issues, that we have progressed enough that the costs and benefits are more closely matched. On the one hand, James Swartz questions whether it is “acceptable to lose just one precious child”; on the other, Lenore Skenazy argues that saving that last life may involve costs that outweigh the benefits. Such a debate is not between facts and “myths”—it concerns values.