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What Price Safety?

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I sometimes wonder if we are becoming the bubble kids, protected in a plastic bubble so we never get hurt, never get exposed to germs, and never experience the outside world.

We were out the other night with friends; they have three kids, one in college, one in high school and one in grade school. It seemed like every hour or so they would reach for their PDA's to find out where the kids were. My wife and I reminisced about our high school years when we would leave after dinner and return in some wee hour, knowing where to step on the stairs to avoid the inevitable alarm squeak that would rouse the elders to an hour of questioning. Yes, we did some pretty stupid stuff, but we made it OK (at least I think so!).

So what's with the constant texting and emailing and calling to make sure the kids are alright? Maybe it's the same caution that causes our government to enact regulations after legislation to protect us from ourselves? Is it the same mentality that wants to dictate private enterprise executive compensation, or the phalanx of police and barricades at a NYC parade that protects marchers from the potential havoc wreaked by spectators, or the myriad of rules coming down to reduce risk in the financial industry? Are these different?

I was reflecting on an episode of The Simpsons, where Homer is off work and feeling unappreciated. He causes a traffic accident and takes his indignation to the local planning meeting and petitions for a sign warning people about the road hazard. They pass the motion without a debate. Feeling emboldened, he scours the town identifying potential hazards and then returns each week to push for another warning sign. The end of the episode is a panorama of the town streets covered in traffic signs! Sound familiar to some of our legislators? Just look at the recent Supreme Court overturn of the ban on drilling imposed by the federal government to overcome lax oversight on their part? Stopping all drilling as a reaction to a singular failure by Transocean and British Petroleum is like covering the town in traffic warning signs. A "little" overkill to an industry that has produced some pretty spectacular innovation reaching oil in great ocean depths.

With that said, how far do we allow our government to go in protecting the interests of our citizenry? It's difficult to argue about laws that protect some group of us. But enough already!

There are always unintended consequences with any change (new regulation) that isn't fully appreciated by those working toward or approving the change. In many cases, the intention to protect will restrict our personal freedom, limit our markets to growth, and reduce competitiveness. Take for example the support of the federal government of our automotive industry. It starts with a desire to protect jobs and the manufacturing base. But come on, what happened to free enterprise and capitalism and the survival of the fittest? It is a system that promotes efficiency, productivity and innovation.

When the government intervenes to overcome years of poor management and abusive labor tactics, the outcome is mediocrity. By eliminating the fear of failure and the personal risks inherent in poor performance, we will legislate ourselves to a level playing ground leading to stagnant growth and a drop in innovation.