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The blame game has gone too far when governments become guardians

By Caspar Conde - posted Wednesday, 16 February 2005

Australians enjoy a quality of life unknown to earlier generations. Generally, we live longer than ever before; we are better housed, better fed and better educated; and few of us have faced the dangers of war or the traumas of poverty.

Scientific and technical progress has made our lives much less risky. Modern agriculture means we no longer face the threat of famine while modern medicine has banished many previously life-threatening diseases.

But the advance of science has created new risks. In some cases - for example, the possibility of global warming or nuclear proliferation - the threat posed by these risks is catastrophic.


Because we have grown accustomed to an easy, comfortable life, and because the risks that we now face can appear genuinely frightening, we have as a society become a lot more risk-averse. There is an increasing use of the "precautionary principle" - the idea that it is better to err on the side of caution, even if this means letting opportunities slip by.

The precautionary principle has unfortunately crept into everyday policy. Governments today are increasingly legislating and regulating with a view to minimising all risks, no matter how trivial.

Take the preoccupation with obesity. Western populations are getting fatter, which has health implications. At the last federal election both major parties released policies to tackle obesity. The Liberals suggested after-hours exercise programs for schoolchildren, Labor wanted to ban junk-food advertising during children's TV shows.

These initiatives are well-intentioned, but it is devastating for personal responsibility when the most basic decisions of what to eat and when to exercise are delegated to government.

True, the main focus in Australia so far has been on children, but isn't it the parents' or guardians' role to raise their children so that they learn about self-control and a good diet? Rather than government banning the ads, shouldn't parents be teaching their children how to respond to them?

The banning instinct does not stop at obesity. In Victoria, following two incidents where broken glass was used as a weapon in pub brawls, the police chief commissioner proposed a ban on glasses in pubs and nightclubs as the best way to prevent injuries. In NSW, the Premier, Bob Carr, announced a $1,100 penalty for people who buy alcohol for friends who are intoxicated.


The message in both cases is that drinkers should no longer be expected to control their alcohol intake, or to behave with restraint. Instead, pubs must prevent risk by serving beer in plastic glasses, as if at a children's party, and friends must under pain of law determine when others have had enough.

In the risk-averse society that is emerging, government is making it its business to anticipate and prevent every foreseeable negative event. This is the precautionary principle gone mad; nothing is to be allowed to go wrong.

When a population is encouraged to depend on government to protect it from risks, personal dignity is threatened and the principle of limited government disappears. Before World War I, the federal government passed an average of 23 new pieces of legislation each year. Today, that has risen to average 178. As time goes by we become increasingly regulated and monitored, which means we lose the habit of self-reliance.

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First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on February 2, 2005 and also on The Centre for Independent Studies website.

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About the Author

Caspar Conde is a lawyer based in Sydney. He is a former adjunct scholar at The Centre for Independent Studies (CIS).

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