Save us from the technocrats

The other day I was asked to take part in an event benefitting the homeless. No, that's not the punchline. It's that I ended up getting rejected because I was unable to attend the mandatory technical training first.

Some readers may think my compassion needs work. But not, please, through the sorts of cybernetic techniques Robert McNamara applied in Vietnam. The result of such a technocratic approach is a form of insanity all the more chilling for being hyper-rational. Not merely in its manifestations, but in its foundations: a relentless determination to quantify everything, however inappropriate it might be.

Ironically, whatever compassion I might be feeling for anyone or anything was being simultaneously and dramatically impaired by another manifestation of this weird modern mindset. Did you know that it is government policy in this province that we not be able to see the lake from the deck?

I am not making this up, just fixing it up. You see, a building inspector recently came to check some changes to our cottage and, on his way by, condemned our existing deck as unsafe and required us to block the view.

I realize the inspector was only doing his job. But I do not see that it is the business of the state to determine whether my deck is safe. Governments are instituted among humans to secure our legitimate rights against invasion by others, and their duty is to suppress force and fraud and act where genuine "free rider" problems lead to things like polluted lakes. (Which we have, by the way.)

Canada was settled by people who took responsibility upon themselves for constructing suitable homes, barns, vehicles and other necessities, and I can assure you that if the pioneers who broke the sod of Quebec, Ontario or the prairies had been obliged to go through today's scientific permit application process, the country would be an unspoiled wilderness from sea to shining swamp.

If you're wondering what would become of us without all this supervision, well, there's a major risk of our becoming a great nation, wealthy, confident and a bastion of freedom in two world wars. And if we sometimes have trouble judging safety, the private insurance industry is a mighty backstop. Unlike governments, insurance companies have to be right about what's safe, because they must charge reasonable premiums and offer reasonable payouts and leave room for a small margin of profit by getting both right.

Governments face no such constraint. I know. I was there, standing on a deck that was not "unsafe" in the primitive, non-technical sense of ever having been the scene of an injury even though, before we bought it, it had no safety railings at all, just posts and a top board above a yawning, vertiginous gap. We disliked this sufficiently to put in what we decided was a safe railing, leaving a space at the top for gazing at the lake.

Regrettably such things have been cybernetically de-authorized. It is now mandatory to have a railing 42 inches high with spindles running all the way up. How many of you own "Muskoka" chairs or similar furniture that let you see over a 42 inch railing? Sorry, that question does not compute.

The crowning irrational glory in my view, or obstruction thereof, is the requirement that we raise our railing by one inch before installing the spindles. See, ours is only 41 inches high so it must be raised, regardless of the expense or transparently evident lack of contribution to safety.

As G.K. Chesterton observed exactly a century ago, "These great scientific organizers insist that a man should be healthy even if he (is) miserable." My guess is they'll only achieve the latter, because enjoyment of nature is very good for us and these regulations place economic as well as visual barriers in the way of this venerable but unscientific Canadian habit.

The episode is cast in a revealingly artificial light by the ruckus over the fake lake at the G20 summit in Toronto. It would take me too far afield (but don't worry, it's just a depiction of a field within an air-conditioned building) to ask what business it is of the state to promote tourism. Or how good at it they're likely to be if they try. But people who think a puddle in a plastic basin with some canoes and a painted backdrop of what you'd be seeing if you really were in the Muskokas and the railing regulations were different are unlikely to be concerned that they're ruining the experience for the rest of us.

Indeed, they're far more likely to think I'd appreciate their efforts better if I'd had the appropriate technical training.

But alas, the social engineers lag behind their woodworking counterparts so there I sit like a rotting deck in a damp forest with real flies, a shockingly backward specimen of unsafe self-reliance whose compassion is now, technically, homeless.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson