City Journal

Roger Scruton
What Is Acceptable Risk?
The real risks to individuals and society are not those the state forbids.
Winter 2001

The state of Massachusetts has passed a law against sushi—that is to say, you will be allowed to eat sushi only if it has first been either cooked or frozen, so ceasing, in effect, to be sushi. Why? A minuscule risk exists that sushi, in its normal condition, will make you sick. And this is a risk that the citizens of Massachusetts are no longer allowed to take.

Manufacturers of children's playgrounds now predict that swings in public playgrounds will become a thing of the past, since safety regulations require prohibitively expensive padding beneath them. Indeed, the regulations surrounding children's toys, clothes, and activities are now so strict that it is hard to have an adventurous childhood. In England it is even against the law to allow your child to walk down a country lane to school, since there is a one in a billion chance that he will be abducted.

In the past, the law made a distinction between those risks to health and safety that citizens might voluntarily assume and those from which the state should protect them. Since every act of protection by the state involves a loss of freedom, lawmakers assumed that only in very special cases should the state expropriate our risk taking. In matters of public hygiene, where the risks taken by one person also fall upon others, it seemed legitimate for the state to intervene: for example, the state could compel people to maintain standards of cleanliness in public places or to undergo vaccinations against contagious diseases. But it should not forbid a person to consume a certain product, merely because there is a tiny risk to his own physical well-being. For the state to extend its jurisdiction so far involves a serious invasion of privacy. In matters that affect the citizen alone and that have no adverse consequences on others, the citizen should be free to choose. The state can inform him of the risk, but it should not forbid the choice.

Such, at any rate, was the orthodox position, as defended by John Stuart Mill and the "classical" liberals. But it is not the position adopted by our modern legislators, who do their best to remove both the risk and the freedom to run it. My neighbors are farmers who produce dairy products, livestock, and poultry. Within a few yards of my door is an abundance of milk, eggs, chicken, duck, bacon, beef, and cheese. But I must travel six miles if I am to buy any of these things, and what I buy will have traveled a further 1,000 miles, on average, before reaching me. This is because the state has forbidden me to take the risk of eating my neighbors' products, until they have been processed, packaged and purified, released into the endless stream of global produce, and entirely purged of their local identity and taste. Although the risk of eating the food that grows next door is solely mine, I am not allowed to take it.

The social, environmental, and political costs of such regulation far outweigh any narrow benefit in terms of health. This is especially apparent to someone who lives among farmers and who observes the decline of their industry, the ruination of the landscape, and the dereliction of the farms that has ensued as a result of the criminalization of their traditional economy. However, all protests against over-regulation fall on deaf ears. Governments now regard risk management as their preserve and their priority, and they are prepared to destroy the country's ability to feed itself in an emergency, rather than tolerate one "unnecessary" case of salmonella.

As soon as you look more closely at the matter, however, you discover that modern governments are very selective in the risks that they forbid, and that a law forbidding one risk will often coincide with a law permitting another. Several European governments are currently proposing to outlaw smoking in public places at the same time as legalizing marijuana. Our own government is destroying the local slaughterhouses on which our meat farmers depend on the grounds of wholly invented and unproven risks, while lowering the age of consent for homosexual intercourse and censuring as "homophobic" those who would alert us to the known medical consequences.

In fact, you will quickly discover that Nanny is not concerned with health so much as life-style. She is eager to protect young people from smoking and cites the health risk as her argument. But she does not wish to protect them from homosexual adventures and therefore forbids all discussion of the risk, far greater though it is than the risk attached to cigarettes. Health legislation is being used not to improve the state of the nation's health but to undermine its old, family-based values and to replace them with the antinomian morality of the urban elite.

This is why our government is indifferent to the effect of its legislative zeal on the lives of small farmers. The family farm is the quintessence of old English society, embodying all those virtues of continuity, tradition, patriotism, and local attachment that our ancestors embraced and defended in two world wars. The farmer is probably the most politically incorrect of Englishmen, and the one most at odds with the media culture that surrounds our government. Hence his way of life can be sacrificed without compunction, and his protests go unheard.

The use of health and safety codes to penalize politically incorrect life-styles was beautifully exemplified here in rural Wiltshire this last year. Nothing makes Nanny more angry than foxhunting—an offense against the manners, dress code, and morality of the urban elite that has the added taint of being a centuries-old tradition. Nanny is trying hard to make foxhunting illegal. In the meantime, self-appointed policemen patrol the hunts with cameras, looking for evidence of some criminal design. Last year, they photographed the kennel man of the Beaufort Hunt as he left the carcasses of chickens by an earth where some fox cubs lived. This outrageous act caused a national scandal: feeding foxes! Nurturing animals in order to hunt them! The fact that the cubs were orphans, abandoned when their mother was run over by a car, was of no account. Nanny had discovered that people who hunt encourage their quarry to live, sadistically preserving it for a gruesome death. The problem was that no rule in the statute book seemed to condemn it.

At last, after several months of delving, a bureaucrat discovered a piece of European legislation saying that you cannot freely dispose of animal waste without following official guidelines and undergoing official inspections. By leaving out uninspected meat in an uninspected place, the kennel man had committed a crime: the very crime that we all commit when putting out suet for birds. Of course, we bird lovers won't be prosecuted—not yet. So far as I can discover, the case of the Beaufort Hunt was the first and indeed the only time that this particular law has been invoked.

The emphasis on life-style also explains the extraordinary war now being waged against tobacco. Smoking belongs with those old and settled habits—like calling women "ladies," getting drunk on Friday nights with your mates, staying married nevertheless, and having babies in wedlock—that reflect the values of a society shaped by the clear division of sexual roles. It is a symbol of the old order, as portrayed by Hollywood and Ealing Studios in the post-war years, and its very innocence, when set beside cocaine or heroin, gives it the aspect of discarded and parental things.

Furthermore, tobacco advertising has specialized in evoking old ideas of male prowess and female seductiveness: even now, cigarette ads dramatize decidedly un-hip fantasies that stand opposed to the elite culture—after all, the target consumer is the ordinary person, whose fantasies these are. Nor should we forget that tobacco is big business, from which giant corporations make vast profits by the hour. In almost every way, tobacco offends against political correctness, and precisely because it seems to put older people at their ease and enable them to deal confidently with others, it raises the hackles of those who have never achieved that precious condition and whose discomfort is only increased by the sight of others so harmlessly and sociably enjoying themselves.

This is not to deny that tobacco is a risk to health: of course it is. Moreover, it is just about the only product on the market that relentlessly says so. But the health risk does not really explain the vehemence of the attacks on it or the extraordinary attempts by the Environmental Protection Agency and other bureaucracies to portray cigarette smoke as the single most important threat to our children's well-being. For the risk tobacco poses, when compared with those associated with marijuana, automobiles, fatty food, alcohol, or sedentary ways of life, is not actually very serious. Robert A. Levy and Rosalind B. Marimot have shown that smoking reduces the life expectancy of an American 20-year-old by 4.3 years. In an age when people manifestly live too long, why should Nanny be so worried? And why doesn't she turn her attention instead to those products that risk not the physical but the mental and moral health of the consumer: television, for example, or pornography?

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what offends about tobacco is not its medical guilt but its moral innocence. It is precisely because it is so harmless, from every point of view other than the medical one, that smoking gets on Nanny's nerves. People don't commit crimes under the influence of smoking, as they do under the influence of drink or drugs. People who smoke have a ready way of putting themselves at ease, of standing back from the world of troubles and taking benign stock of it. Their characters are not distorted or corrupted by their habit, nor is their moral sense betrayed. The smoker is a normal, responsible member of the community, and he can be relied upon, when asked, to put out his fag. He is not led by his habit into transgressing the established order or the old moral code; on the contrary, his habit has been entirely domesticated by the old sexual morality and recruited to the task of glamorizing it.

Contrast the vehement attacks on tobacco with the pussyfooting over AIDS. The fact that the promiscuous habits of many male homosexuals have greatly advanced this disease has done nothing to make Nanny warn against homosexuality or against exposing young people, even children, to its allure. Indeed, the medical facts about homosexuality are now more or less unmentionable in official circles. They are certainly unmentioned by the British government—in this as in most things a touchstone of political correctness—which has stepped up its campaign not merely to lower the age of consent for homosexual intercourse but also to introduce propaganda into junior schools that will legitimize the "gay" alternative. The medical consequences are brushed aside with advice about condoms and lubricants. Doctors who protest are sneered at, and even in writing this paragraph in City Journal I am conscious that I am doing my career as a commentator no good and probably ruling out any prospect of a return to a British university.

For all the fuss over the health and safety effects of various substances, it's interesting to see how little the authorities attend to the health and safety of different life-styles. Statistics show that people live longer, happier, and healthier lives if they are in a stable marriage, if they have the support of a religion, and if they adhere to the traditional sexual code. (Maybe you don't have to be a Darwinian to believe that this is no accident.) But where are the health campaigners and the bureaucrats who are drawing the legislative consequences? Who is agitating for the laws that will privilege these old-fashioned, not to say reactionary, ways of life or for the propaganda campaigns in schools and colleges that will communicate their benefits?

If an article were to appear in a newspaper describing a drug that prolonged life by so much as a year, the medicine would be hailed as a miracle cure. The real miracle cure—religious belief—seems to have a seven-year advantage over atheism, yet it goes unrecognized by Nanny. Indeed, the health consequences of the libertine life-style are, when compared with the consequences of smoking, truly disastrous. Add atheism, relativism, promiscuity, homosexuality, easy divorce, and unstable relationships together, and you probably knock ten years off your life expectancy. But Nanny will never tell you this and will go on reproaching you for your naughty habit of smoking in corners, even if it is the only  way, with such a demanding life-style, to obtain a moment's quiet relief.

Once we see that health legislation is less concerned with physical health than with life-style and the underlying values that life-styles express, we can understand the modern approach to drugs. From the medical point of view, marijuana is at least as dangerous as tobacco, with carcinogenic and cardiological effects comparable with those of ordinary cigarettes and an added danger of brain damage. Moreover, marijuana seems seriously to affect the character and moral responsiveness of those who become addicted to it, and it has a proven association with hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. The connection of all three drugs with crime is well documented by experts and well known to ordinary people. Ask parents what most concerns them among the dangers confronting their children, and you will surely find smoking very low down the list; far higher, and probably nearer the top, will be drugs and the culture that glamorizes them. Hard drugs like heroin kill the user, usually at a young age. But before doing so they rob him of his faculties, his peace of mind, his conscience and consideration for others, his ability to love and be loved. Then they send the body to extinction, already deprived of the soul. And they threaten the lives and the happiness of others—whether parents, lovers, or friends. They present as clear a case as a "classical" liberal could wish for substances whose use should be a crime.

But this is not the message Nanny relays. Drugs are associated with the life-style of which Nanny approves: transgressive, pleasure seeking, contemptuous of stable relationships and objective moral codes. Nanny approves of this life-style because it is subversive of those institutions—marriage, family, local societies, and other "little platoons"—that compete with the state for our loyalties. Where transgression rules, so does the state. Hence in the eyes of the state, the addict is at worst an object of compassion, at best a heroic defender of a valid way of life. His habit is an escape from the intolerable conventions of bourgeois society, and if he lives in a dream world of his own, isn't that his right, in a society that provides no better, or more real, alternative?

Such is the message that is gathering strength among the members of the British political establishment and that corresponds to the emerging reality of our schools. Relentless propaganda against smoking tobacco goes hand in hand with an easy toleration of those who smoke pot, even when they smoke it on the playground. Tobacco users are seeking initiation into the old sexual roles and are therefore subjects of obloquy; marijuana users are preparing themselves for the new, vague, omnisexual life-style, in which real relationships dissolve in a cloud of easy and promiscuous affection. Hence their habit has gained acceptance as no one's business but their own. As far as the health campaigners are concerned, there is no problem. They have averted their eyes, just as they have averted their eyes from the damage done by other habits associated with the youth culture: rock music, for example, which causes widespread deafness; or strobe lights, which cause disorientation of the brain and even epileptic fits.

All this would matter less if the habit of legislation did not encourage a false sense of security. By constantly intervening to save the citizen from self-imposed risk, the legislature creates the impression that everything else is harmless. The citizen need take no care over what he does, so long as he respects the surgeon general's warning and buys in the official market. The state is there to guarantee a risk-free life, and if a risk is not acknowledged by the state, then it doesn't exist. If Nanny sees no harm in pornography or 12-hour doses of television each day or promiscuous but protected sex, then there is no harm in them. Gradually the impression grows that the only risks facing the ordinary citizen are those associated with the old-fashioned life-style glamorized in the Marlboro ads.

Hence the state, by taking charge of risk, massively exposes us to it. The real risks are not those that the state forbids but those that it fosters through its ethos of political correctness. These permitted risks are permitted because it is forbidden to forbid them. To condemn them would be to "marginalize" some valid "alternative" and therefore to interfere with some newly invented or discovered "right." Hence the risks of promiscuity, drug taking, and other habits that short-circuit the rite of passage into adult life are not openly discussed. These practices belong to a culture that has grown under state protection and that is at war with traditional values.

In this way, by being over-protective of the individual, the state undermines society. Almost the entire energy of the health campaigners is devoted to forbidding habits that pose no conceivable social threat, while permitting others that promise social fragmentation. School notice boards now forbid virtually nothing that the young would like to do, save smoking. Their messages about sex, precisely because they are framed exclusively in the language of hygiene, are read as permissions, and their warnings about drugs are noticeably more muted than those relating to tobacco. I am reminded of the scene in Catch-22 when the hero, going aft to the tail gunner and finding him slumped and bleeding, congratulates himself on the perfect dressing that he applies to the visible wound, only to see a moment later the gunner's guts sliding out from elsewhere.

Of course, a responsible parent would try to prevent his children from smoking. But when the parent takes responsibility, he sees health as part of a larger goal: the long-term fulfillment of his child. This is why it is better, not merely for society but for the individual, too, if education in the taking of risks is left to parents and not appropriated by the state. Wise parents know that their children must grow up and take their place in the community. The child will need nothing so much as the love and trust of others, and these benefits can't be won without a long process of character building and moral education. No sensible parents believe that the future well-being of their child depends entirely on the chemicals that he ingests, or that they can guarantee his happiness merely by ensuring that his bodily functions conform to the surgeon general's requirements.

By attending to the moral and spiritual health of their offspring, mothers and fathers provide a far better guarantee of longevity than Nanny can offer. As a parent, it seems to me far more important to keep my children away from television than from "environmental tobacco smoke" and far more important to take them to church than to show them the use of a condom. This makes me a misfit, from the point of view of our official culture. But it is part of what makes me fit into the real culture that surrounds me, the culture that Nanny is trying to kill.

Moreover, those risks against which Nanny warns us are also, in a measure, good for us. It is good that children are surrounded by activities that are permitted but disapproved. For they have to learn to make choices and to know that something may be permitted by the law, and even encouraged by the state, despite being morally wrong. Smoking presents us with an easy apprenticeship in interdiction: a way of showing to a child that something that is not a crime nevertheless ought to be avoided. It belongs, with junk food, pop music, and television, to the world of daily temptations, which is the practice-ground for self-control.

Furthermore there are other risks that a child ought to be encouraged to take, despite the fact that Nanny doesn't like them. Children should not be officiously protected from every kind of danger. Just as their immune systems benefit from contact with hostile bacteria, so do their characters benefit from physical risk. In England, it is now almost impossible for a teacher to lead his class on an expedition, to camp out with his pupils on the moors, or to take them to sea in a boat. All such things occur in the gray area between enterprise and crime, where it is foolhardy for a teacher to trespass. In the world that Nanny is now creating, children encounter danger only on the TV screen, where it is the object of unhealthy and sadistic fantasies, rather than the occasion for cool-headed thinking and resourceful courage.

But this brings us to the crux. Underlying Nanny's attempts to police our way of life is an obsession with the body and its destiny and a refusal to acknowledge that human life is lived, when properly lived, on another plane. You must not smoke, because it harms your body, Nanny asserts (though smoking still leaves the soul in charge and the moral sense undamaged); whereas the harm drugs cause is less important, since drug taking liberates the body. The ecstasy of drugs is a kind of displacement of the soul—a rising up of the body, aided by a physical substance, to usurp the soul's dominion. Similarly, the damage done in the name of sex is done at the body's behest, and by way of overcoming the domain of moral scruples; it is damage done on the body's behalf and in the name of liberation. In all these ways, Nanny promotes the demoralization of the human being and his reconstitution as a purely physical, purely animal thing. Hence Nanny is unable by her very nature to notice that health is promoted far more effectively by a sober, righteous, and godly life than by a fat-free, smoke-free regimen.

But what, in a secular age, should we oppose to Nanny's demoralized vision? It is because people are at a loss for an answer to this question that they capitulate so readily before laws that forbid them to eat sushi, to smoke in public, or to bring up their children as their conscience suggests. In an age when the highest authority is the doctor, and when the state borrows the doctor's white coat, people find themselves insensibly drawn into the vision of themselves as farmyard animals, herded together for their own good.

The answer, it seems to me, is not to deny that we are animals but to recognize that we are animals of a special kind—animals that make themselves by their cooperative efforts into free and spiritual beings. We live by telling our own story, and that story can either ennoble us or demean us. We are ennobled when we learn to coexist with the body on terms, when we subordinate the body's needs to our true loves and loyalties, when we expose it to whatever risks are required by life among friends and neighbors, and when we prevent it from darkening or eclipsing our emotions. No other life is worth living, even if Nanny recommends it. And it is part of the good life that we should not "strive/ officiously to stay alive," but should recognize the grace of timely death—a death that does not come so late that no one regrets it.

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