What Price Safety?

Safety In the words of Robert Heinlein, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." I'm pretty sure this is true on a fundamental level. Unfortunately, too many people never bother trying to figure out what something will actually cost before supporting or endorsing it.

An Example

One such instance is a new movement here in Utah called Zero Fatalities. They're running radio ads here and my blood pressure rises every time one comes on. This is from their front page:

Even though there are more people living in Utah and people are driving more, fewer safe abortion pill people are losing their lives on Utah's roads. However, the loss of just one life is too many. This is the philosophy of Zero Fatalities. It's a goal we can all live with. It's the ONLY goal we can all live with.

I can't even begin to tell you how much this disgusts me. Their one virtue might be that at least they are honest with their advocacy intentions. Many advocacy groups want to imply that they only exist to solve some problem with the implication that they'll go away once that problem is solved (comfortable in their ability to show why the problem hasn't been solved no matter how much is done to do so). Not these guys. They admit right up front that even with fatalities in decline, they're going to keep right on going until we hit zero.

The Problem With Zero Fatalities

The rest of it is pure hogwash, though. Zero fatalities isn't a goal we can all live with and it certainly isn't the only goal we can all live with. For a goal to be livable, you have to understand what the costs of achieving that goal are. So let's ask the question these guys glide blissfully by:

What would it take to achieve zero traffic fatalities? I mean, it's theoretically possible to achieve and it's pretty easily measured, so as a goal, it's not half bad. So. Let's assume you're actually serious about achieving this goal, what would you have to do?

In other words, what is the cost of this non-free lunch?

Easy, get rid of traffic. It might work if you just hobbled all cars so that none could travel faster than 5 mph, but that's an unsupported assumption. Is it possible to have zero traffic fatalities at higher speeds? Theoretically, maybe, but there is a point, and that point is below 35 mph, where a traffic fatality is inevitable with nothing but speed as an excuse.

This doesn't even address DUI issues or simple carelessness that make it possible to have a traffic fatality at literally any speed.

The Cost of Getting Rid of Traffic

While the picture of life without cars, trucks, and motorways may be prosaically aesthetic, the true results would be catastrophic. While you could theoretically get by on trains and subways for many things, it'd mean giving up things that require flexibility and individuality. Imagine no emergency vehicles, for example. No way to bring home more than a bag or two of groceries at a time (which means having to go grocery shopping nearly every day). No way to go on long trips with the family that requires any gear you can't haul yourself.

In the end, it presumes that every place that you want to reach is also somewhere that enough other people want to reach to build a rail line there.

But here's the real kicker that anti-vehicle utopians will have to face: trucks currently carry three-fourths of the value of all freight shipped in the U.S. and two-thirds of all freight by weight. Getting rid of that infrastructure would require an enormous amount of work, time, and money, not to mention being willing to accept the costs of rigidly controlled and scheduled deliveries.

Not getting rid of all of these things means accepting the loss of life entailed in having traffic.

Infinite Value

Zero Fatalities is a form of what I've taken to calling "the infinite value fallacy". The terms are being set by this sentence: "the loss of just one life is too many." If you accept that statement, then you really have to accept the logical consequences of that statement. i.e. if you accept that "one life is too many", then you really have to accept that we need to get rid of traffic altogether.

Frankly, there are a lot of political and societal arguments that boil down to assigning an infinite value to something. The biggest example of this right now is the vast majority of the global warming crowd. You can test this out by trying to create a cost comparison between doing nothing about global warming and all the current plans to do something. It doesn't take long for someone advocating Action! Now! to create an infinite value argument.

This goes for a lot of environmentalism today, unfortunately. It's a shame because I'm instinctively sympathetic to arguments that we should be wise stewards over our resources and make our footprint as small as we can afford to. That said, I just can't buy those arguments that assign forests more value than people's lives or even livelihoods because I don't buy that maintaining our current level of forestedness is more valuable than people's lives or livelihoods.

The Formal Fallacy

The actual fallacy involved here is called a "false dilemma" and is illustrated by Pascal's Wager. Blaise Pascal argued that it'd be a good idea to act as if there was a God because you stand to gain an infinite value if he exists and lose little of real value if he doesn't.

The trouble with that wager is that there are many more possibilities than the the two presented (starting with the possibility that God exists but not as described).

Once you recognize that you have stumbled into a false dilemma, proving it is simply a matter of finding the buried alternatives. For Pascal's wager, noting that there exists a huge multiplicity of gods, ancient and modern, is probably sufficient. Noting that at least some of those gods require sincerity and not simply bet-hedging lays it right out.

A Pleasant Delusion

Infinite value arguments are a tough form of the false dilemma, though, even if you can identify where the infinite value is being placed. What makes it so hard is that the false dilemma is bound up in a pleasant, but logically impossible position. In other words, people want to believe that some things have infinite value. We want to believe that every life is precious, that forests are inviolate, that every species is valuable, and that we should keep our oceans and waterways immaculately pure.

What that means in practical terms is that while there are many alternatives to the false dilemma of infinite value, those alternatives tend to be unpalatable. Suggesting them makes you seem harsh, even when you are right.

For the Zero Fatality crowd, you can point out that no society acts as if every life were of infinite value because all societies accept structures and institutions that cost lives (even if accidentally) and that such a belief is simplistic and kind of stupid.  It's hard to face the reality that life isn't infinitely valuable, but not hard to illustrate. Traffic deaths are actually a great illustration of this because eliminating traffic is the only way to prevent all traffic deaths and the costs of that prevention is so enormous that the pursuit of zero traffic deaths is shown to be ludicrous.

Safety Always Involves Trade-offs

Safety, whether it involves accidental, deliberate, fatal, or non-fatal events, always involves trade-0ffs. We see that in our response to terrorism and our attempts to work out what we're willing to pay to reduce the risk of another terrorist attack. We certainly see that in traffic safety. And we see it over and over again with anything that involves children.

Which is where this long post is leading, really, because our most brain-damaged actions right now have to do with the safety of our children. It's here where the infinite value arguments come fast and furious. It's a tough thing to admit that we, as a society, should be willing to risk the health and even lives of our children, but without admitting this fundamental truth we're setting ourselves up for a world of pain that we're only just now beginning to realize.

That said, this post is long enough where it stands and it's time to shut it down, so exploring that theme will have to wait for another day. Or week, rather, because we're headed on vacation tomorrow...

29. June 2007 00:31 by admin | Comments (0) | Permalink

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