Saturday, 6 February 2010

Mandatory uber ignorance

I came across this article and at first I thought it seemed a sensible idea: making cigarettes self-extinguish with the view to reducing deaths through domestic fires.

From the governments own figures it seems that dwelling fire deaths have reduced from 731 in 1988 to 190 in 2007. This has been mainly due to fire-retardant furniture and smoke alarms which now appear in 80% of the homes.

RoSPA (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) indicates that due to the recession, there is a sharp rise in fire deaths as a result of “smoker’s materials” in Scotland, with alcohol being a contributory factor.

An interesting observation suggesting the Law of Unintended Consequences is alive and well:

“Ahead of the introduction of the smoking ban in 2006, some concerns were raised about the potential for an increase in fire deaths. We do not know whether the ban was directly linked to the rise in deaths, but it, together with the economic situation and efforts to tackle binge drinking, could mean people are now more inclined to stay at home to drink"

I did a quick bit of research into these reduced ignition propensity (RIP) cigarettes and was expecting the introduction or a fire-retardant chemical in there, but instead, it is a simple mechanism whereby ultra-thin concentric bands or 'speed bumps' are introduced in the cigarette paper in order to restrict oxygen access to the burning end of the cigarette.

Now, overall the campaigning, the government adverts, the smoke detectors, the fire regulations, lobbying have all come together to reduce deaths which is a good thing and I’m not going to comment or criticise this directly in any way.

What I am curious about is the overlap between educating people, manufacturing of safety devices and enforcement of legislation. The example above has a mixture of all three entities. So what is better: a pincer movement from all three, more education than legislation or more legislation than education?

To my more libertarian mindset, I would prefer to see more education than legislation, but would more legislation would be more efficient, quicker and possibly cheaper than education? Could we eventually achieve the same results with education alone? Maybe, eventually and probably helped by safety devices but would there be more deaths in the process?

Would safety devices absolve the individual from thinking about their own actions in the future, creating a sense of false expectation in their everyday lives?

For me, this symbolises in a small way, the struggle of Libertarianism versus Authoritarianism we see in so many aspects of our lives. Some see legislation as unnecessarily authoritative. Some see legislation as a social panacea to curing all our ills. We know from experience one exclusively over the other usually provides an unsatisfactory outcome.

Perhaps a perpetual balance of all three is simply the way things are as it reflects the myriad ways that human beings think and carry out their lives in the way that they feel fit.

What do you, dear reader, think?

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