Values and Consistency

If you ask Americans if they value equality, almost all will say that of course they do. And if you ask them if they value freedom, it turns out most value that as well. I’m one of those folks: I value both equality and freedom.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t tensions between my two values. Think about it: a perfectly egalitarian society is unlikely to be especially free, just as a perfectly free society is unlikely to be all that equal. Inevitably, there will be tradeoffs, and we have to compromise, to give up a little freedom to insure equality, or sacrifice a little equality to preserve freedom.

In my view, our discussion has arrived at this point. Americans hold that they have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In her contributions, Lenore Skenazy emphasizes the importance of liberty, while Anthony Green and James A. Swartz stress the importance of life.

So far as I can tell, none of us object to regulations requiring cars to have seat belts and airbags, or houses to have smoke detectors. These are simple technical fixes that have saved thousands of lives at relatively low cost in money and inconvenience. But even Mr. Green, whose most recent contribution notes that about 4,000 young people die in motor vehicle accidents annually, did not pick up on my suggestion that a national 5 mph speed limit would markedly cut that death toll. This leads me to suspect that—rhetoric about priceless lives aside—we all understand that tradeoffs are inevitable. Do the benefits of getting rid of lanyards outweigh the costs? The answer doesn’t seem all that apparent.

We may like to imagine that our values form coherent, consistent philosophies, but imagining doesn’t make it so.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Lenore Skenazy argues that when it comes to children, we have gone too far in the pursuit of safety at all costs. This isn’t just a cultural phenomenon, either; it has serious implications for public policy, in the form of consumer product regulations and family and even criminal law. She suggests that it’s time to start learning to relax about children’s safety. In particular, allowing kids to take controlled risks is one of the ways that we introduce them to the real world, which is not and should not be risk-free.

Response Essays

  • Anthony Green argues that child safety is nothing to joke about. It is not an overreach to call the police if you see a child alone in a locked car; on the contrary, you should certainly do it. Real progress has been made in child safety in recent years, even as new threats emerge, including toppling television sets and poisoning among older children. The child protection community has done tremendous good, and safety enables fun rather than inhibiting it.

  • James A. Swartz argues that the multibillion dollar corporations that make children’s products have a responsibility to deliver them without any safety hazards. Recalls and labeling are not enough, and a close examination of many such cases reveals a disturbing trend: Corporations are often indifferent to children’s safety. We ought not to excuse or make light of such behavior.

  • Joel Best identifies two changing factors in American culture that have contributed to overblown fears related to children. The first is the mass media, which excels at spreading alarming stories, whether true or fictionalized. The second is the declining birthrate, coupled with increased safety itself: There are fewer children per family, and losing one is not an experience we suffer so often nowadays. As a result, smaller problems appear more alarming.