‘Elf and Safety, Innit

Momentum

Here’s a short parable. Peter and Paul are best friends. One day, Peter phones Paul to tell him some exciting news.

“Hi Paul, it’s Peter. Listen, I’ve got some great news.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
“You know how worried you get about buying and eating something that’s out of date?”
“You can say that again. I’m terrified of getting food poisoning. That’s why I always, always check the dates on everything I buy.”
“I know you do, that’s why you take so long whenever you go shopping! Well, I’ve fixed it so you’ll never have to worry about it again. I’ve made it so you won’t have to waste so much time checking dates and you’ll never have to fear getting food poisoning.”
“Really? Wow! That’s amazing! What a great friend you are. But how did you manage that?”
“Ah. Well, You know how I’ve always said I want to put that gun of mine to good use…”
“Yes…”
“Well, last week me and my gun paid a visit to every food seller in town. I told them in no uncertain terms that if I ever see out of date food on their shelves then I’ll make them hand over £500 – as, you know, deterrent and to cover my costs and such. And if it happens more than once then I’ll force them to close down. For good.”
“Wonderful! I can’t thank you enough, Peter. This will improve my life immeasurably.”

The next day Paul goes shopping. It takes him less time and he finds the experience much less stressful because he’s no longer afraid of getting food poisoning – all because of his wonderful friend’s actions.

After a week or so, Paul starts to be more adventurous in his food choices and tries sushi for the first time. Safe in the knowledge that his friend is preventing shops from selling out of date food, he doesn’t bother checking the date on his salmon sushi. As he exits the shop he marvels at how carefree and adventurous he has become.

Hours after eating his salmon sushi, Paul gets terribly ill. He has food poisoning. The Sushi was out of date. After he recovers, which takes several days, he calls Peter.

“Oh, hi Paul. What’s up?”
“I got food poisoning!”
“What! But How? When?”
“I bought sushi last week from Berrington’s on the corner and it was out of date. God, I was so ill. I hated it. It was my worst nightmare come true.”
“Are you sure it was out of date?”
“Yes, I’m bloody sure.”
“I just…I can’t believe it.”
“I trusted you, Peter. You promised I wouldn’t have to worry about getting food poisoning ever again. And what happens, a week later, I get bloody food poisoning for the first time ever!”
“I trusted you, Peter. You let me down.”
“Are you absolutely sure it was out of date? I mean, I just can’t see how it could have happened. It’s not possible.”
“Jesus Christ! Yes!”

The moral of the story is this. Peter was mistaken in believing that he could use coercion to solve a problem that results from the fact that all human beings make mistakes. By using compulsion he assumed the guilt and not the innocence of everyone he pointed his gun at; he assumed that behind every out of date item on a shelf was criminal intent to harm. Which means Peter also acted unjustly and unethically.

As for Paul, he was wrong to believe that someone else was responsible for his own welfare and thus was foolish to start acting as if that were true. In doing so, he suffered harm which he could have easily avoided.

Lack of criminal intent, however, doesn’t mean that Paul has no claim to reparations from the owner of the shop where he bought the out of date sushi. He does, as long as it can be proven beyond reasonable doubt that his sickness was caused by the sushi. It just means that any reasonable judge should take the lack of criminal intent into consideration when deciding how to act against the shop owner.

Potential harm, i.e. an avoidable hazard such as an out of date food item, which only becomes actual harm if someone fails to avoid it, is not the same as impending harm, i.e. a man thrusting a knife at you, which is unavoidable. Thus using force can only be justified in response to impending harm caused by an unavoidable threat and not potential harm caused by an avoidable hazard.

Every day, we all go about our shopping assuming/believing that coercive government action against retailers is making us safer; not realising that no amount of threatening people with violence can stop them from being imperfect beings who make mistakes.

We think pointing government guns at people leads to retailers acting more responsibly when all it does is lead to ourselves acting less responsibly; to being care-less and less likely to avoid otherwise easily avoidable hazards such as out of date food.

I’m reminded of a story I read last year about a woman who ate something in a cafe, which she didn’t realise contained nuts. She had a severe nut allergy and so had a bad reaction, and ended up requiring hospital treatment.

Happening to be a lawyer, she readily sued the cafe for damages. Her case was built on the argument that the retailer showed insufficient regard for her welfare – there was no sign saying ‘contains nuts’ – and therefore they should be prosecuted.

What struck me was that the same argument used by the prosecution could have been used against her by the defence. After all, by eating something without checking whether it contained nuts, she acted without sufficient regard for her own welfare.

The cafe staff did not know that she had a nut allergy, but she did, so how on earth can they be more responsible for the harm she suffered from her allergic reaction than she? That’s arguing that less knowledge equals more responsibility.

If that is true, then babies have more responsibility for their own welfare than their parents. Absurd! Just one example of how personal responsibility is being socialised in law and legal argument.

There’s an episode of the classic comedy Only Fools and Horses where ‘Del boy’ invites uncle Albert to go for a curry with him and Rodney. “Come on, let’s get down there before the ‘elf [health] inspector does,” says Del.

In other words: Let’s enjoy it before men in government, whose decisions are imposed upon everyone at the point of a gun and who believe only they should get to decide which restaurants everyone can avail of, close it down and remove the value it was adding to our lives.

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