Letter to a foolish politician

To: The Hon. Michael Bryant, attorney general of Ontario Dear Sir:

In a recent letter to my friend Dennis Young (reference #M06-01001) you explain that you asked the federal government to impose a total handgun ban because criminals may steal handguns from legitimate owners and, I quote you here, “No hobby is worth a life.” I wonder if I might prevail upon you not to babble in this fashion.

Surely you realize many more people drown in Ontario than are fatally shot by criminals. And most drownings result from hobbies such as swimming and boating or (says a Canadian Institute for Health Information press release) “walking near water,” whereas many firearms murders don’t involve collectors’ or sports shooters’ stolen weapons. If you seriously believe “No hobby is worth a life,” consistency requires that you seek a ban on these other recreational activities first. If not, why did you say it?

Cynics might claim that, as a politician, you were simply seeking a plausible formulation to seize the rhetorical high ground in defence of a policy you hadn’t really thought through but it polled well and every cool person you knew instinctively supported it. Not me. I charitably grant that you are as confused as you sound. As Henry Hazlitt complained 60 years ago, government policy frequently lags behind Adam Smith.

So let me explain to you the concept of “tradeoffs.” In life, including public policy, every course of action involves both benefits and costs. If nothing else, a decision to spend time doing something we enjoy means that same time cannot be spent doing something else we also enjoy. And most pleasant activities, even golf, not only consume valuable time and money but are also more risky than, say, cowering in our basements. Forget skydiving or white-water rafting. Do you have any idea what might happen if someone were hit in the head by a croquet ball? Or ran into a tree chasing a Frisbee?

Before banning all such reckless pastimes because “No hobby is worth a life,” you might need to chat about tradeoffs with your colleague Jim Watson, the minister of health promotion. He may regard moderate physical activity not just as a pleasant diversion for persons under the care and supervision of the benevolent state, but also as useful in reducing premature death due to being a big fat slob, thus saving the public health system much lovely money. He may even mention the “jogger’s dilemma” that while people who exercise tend to live longer, at any given moment the risk of death is higher while working out than not.

Possibly some state facility could be established at which low-risk aerobics could be conducted in close proximity to advanced medical equipment and far from lakes, ponds and other death traps. And there are plenty of hobbies that look safe. Like stamp collecting, where lethal paper cuts are rare. Or chess: Who ever choked on a rook? So it might seem that a ban on any hobbies mathematically shown to increase fatalities would not impose an undue burden of boredom on the good people of Ontario.

Alas, it is not that simple. Do you have any idea how many car accidents involve people travelling to and from chess clubs, yoga classes or smokefree social gatherings, as well as really scary things like recreational softball where heart attacks, concussions and food poisoning from the potato salad cannot be ruled out entirely? And forget banning automobile travel for frivolous or alarming recreational purposes. Pedestrians can be run over, succumb to heat exhaustion, be stung by bees or otherwise perish on their way to art class. It’s an abattoir out there.

Of course, if we take tradeoffs seriously, we might also have to ask Mr. Watson whether high tobacco taxes, which undermine border security by increasing smuggling, are worth the frisson of virtue from stamping out the sin of smoking. For regrettably one tradeoff in thinking more clearly about policy is realizing some cherished nostrums don’t work. But a trade-off in avoiding clear thinking is doing and saying dumb stuff. Trade-offs are everywhere ... except in your letter.

Finally, stress is a significant factor in premature death. And the modern world has reduced previously significant sources of anxiety, such as frenzied Huns sweeping suddenly over the horizon, but has created others, from the frantic pace of work to people driving while cellphoning to politicians who meddle with law-abiding citizens because they can’t control predatory thugs, then rationalize their conduct in foolish ways.

Even if silly statements are a traditional politicians’ hobby, they are bad for my blood pressure. And remember: No hobby is worth a life.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson