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Risk, Regulation, and Responsibility
Or: Why some people become irrationally angry at being protected from danger.
HAVING GOTTEN PRETTY GOOD at using my new grill, including figuring out how to care for its finicky stainless steel shelves (I didn’t know paper towels could scratch metal), I’ve become aware of a new hazard. No, not propane tanks stored in the garage or developing leaks. The hazard is grill brushes. Specifically, metal grill brushes.
On Facebook, I saw a sponsored post from a U.S. government agency warning against the use of metal-wire grill brushes. (Metal-coil or nylon brushes are considered safe.) The problem is that the little metal bristles can fall out, and they are often too small to see but large enough to stab your throat or pierce your intestine. I looked this up, and while I assume these injuries are statistically rare—I had never heard of this in my life—they are, apparently, absolutely real. Among those warning against metal brushes are not just bureaucrats, but doctors and grillmasters.
I went back to the Facebook post and read the comments. Some people recounted stories of wire bristle-related injuries; others scoffed at the low risk or wondered if nylon is really that much better.
Fine. But it only took a few comments before someone abstracted, politicized, and culture-warred this seemingly neutral question over the risk posed by an otherwise useful tool, writing something to the effect of “People are so soft these days.”
Now. My first reaction on seeing the original warning on Facebook was to think, “Oh come on, it’s just a grill brush.” My second reaction was, “Huh, I think I’ll keep my Weber brush but I think I’ll get rid of my worn-out Home Depot store brand brush.” Never did I think to place the grill brush wire risk in the same conceptual bucket as participation trophies or trigger warnings. Because a steel bristle in your food doesn’t require a metaphor or analogy to make its potential harm intelligible to you: It can simply hurt your body in an extremely painful way. Sort of—a little more below—like catching COVID-19.
People are so soft these days. It is interesting to note the sorts of things that don’t seem to come in for this kind of partisan redescription. I don’t think anyone talks this way about spending hundreds of dollars a month on various insurance policies, for instance. More to the point, I can’t imagine that the sort of person who posted this comment would consider buying insurance to be an abdication of personal responsibility or evidence of weak character—if anything, they would see basic insurance as the inverse of those things. If we can acknowledge that prudence is a virtue, then why does the task of swapping out a grill brush—cheap and easy to do, compared to taking out an insurance policy—spark such a weirdly abstract and grievance-laden response?
It’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that a product that when used correctly can cause serious injuries is still being sold everywhere. The libertarian response to this reality, and in many ways the standard American response, is to accept it as appropriate and to place responsibility for avoiding harm entirely on the consumer: “buyer beware” or “choose your risk level” or “take responsibility for yourself.”
But why, in the libertarian view, is there never any corresponding responsibility not to bring a dangerous product to market? Milton Friedman believed that the only duty of a corporation was to make money. Indeed, he believed this so strongly that he felt that corporations engaging in charitable or social responsibility work were cheating their shareholders. But he also believed, effectively, that consumer welfare consisted of consumers being wary of corporations doing their duty—expecting them not to, essentially. This is commerce as a contest between adversaries.
A friend of mine works as a park ranger, and he laments the fact that he’s had to tell people not to swim in the bodies of water in the various parks he works in. Why shouldn’t you be allowed to swim, he asked me. People have a right to take risks. Just let people choose.
This sort of libertarianism has always struck me as too cavalier, assuming people to be far more rational than they are. Is anyone but a daredevil or stunt actor really choosing to embrace the risk of drowning by taking a swim? Is any grillmaster really consenting to the possibility of a perforated intestine or a sharp bristle lodged in their throat when they scrape their grill down? Is any home cook truly just fine with their kid possibly developing asthma because of a gas stove? Too often we just accept it as legitimate that the dangerous choice is on offer in the first place.
It seems to me there’s almost a glorification of risk here, akin to the naïve glorification of war: lots of duty and honor and sacrifice and glory (such as there is in grilling), far less bleeding and dying. It’s a good rule of thumb to be skeptical of language which sidesteps the thing it’s supposedly talking about. Orwell made this point with forceful clarity. We heard the same euphemistic opposition to safety measures in response to COVID-19 restrictions.
They might have complained about the discomfort of a mask and discounted the discomfort of a ventilator; they turned the question of what was “essential” into a spiritual or metaphysical debate, as if the entire exercise were a matter of philosophy; they even suggested that taking the virus seriously betrayed a weakness of character. It’s funny how many of the same people who scoff at wearing a mask or replacing a wire grill brush or not swimming illegally will also preach about “learning the hard way” about the risks of, say, riding the subway or taking a vaccine. Maybe everyone is a safetyist about the things that scare them.
If there is a compassionate case for forcing these choices onto individuals, I haven’t heard it. It’s obviously vicious to confiscate wire-bristle brushes at the point of a gun, but why is it virtuous to force every person to be their own health policy expert, to shame people for buying what’s for sale, to put people in the position of judging risks with unimaginable, irreversible consequences?
ON THE OTHER HAND, HOWEVER, metal grill brushes work pretty well. They can’t melt. Unlike nylon, they don’t shed microplastics, which are also dangerous. They can be used on hot grates, when the carbonized residue comes off the easiest. Perhaps part of the psychology here is something like “the government is coming after another useful thing in my everyday life.” Even if “coming after” in this case means “encouraging me not to use,” it’s possible to craft that narrative, however tendentious it might be.
And as it happens, National Review recently published an article about “The War on Things That Work.” Connecting mildly annoying regulations to the Green New Deal (remember that?), Noah Rothman warns that
Armed with unchecked self-confidence and possessed of an abiding faith in the idea that you must be coerced into altruism, the activists seem to be coming for almost everything you own. In the process, they are waging a crusade against convenience, an assault on comparative advantage, and a war on things that work.
You’ve seen this movie before, with different stars: incandescent light bulbs, high-volume toilets, showerheads, dishwashers and trisodium phosphate, wood stoves, gas stoves, DDT, trans fats. Environmentalists and nanny-state bureaucrats are making war on things normal Americans love. People who chafe at these regulations often have no trust that regulation per se really is in the public interest. The possibility of government overreach is more real for them than the reality of the thing being regulated.
And yet, I do wonder why it seems like things that work and things that pose unlikely but severe risks are one and the same. Safer cleaning agents and insecticides always feel like they don’t quite work. Water-saving fixtures feel unsatisfying. The electric equivalents of gas lawn tools feel underpowered.
Is the frustration of using a slightly inferior consumer product so bad that it’s worth accepting the negative externalities of the slightly superior one? At one time, the appliance industry and its shills argued that it was impossible to design refrigerators whose doors would not trap and suffocate children. Like the intestinal rupture from the brush bristle, this was a rare, but not unheard-of event. Between January 1954 and June 1956, 39 children died of suffocation from being trapped in latch-door refrigerators.
If such refrigerators were a controversy today, and the government issued a warning against them, somebody would scoff, “People are so soft these days.” Children, especially. If you can explain why complaining about LED light bulbs, nylon grill brushes, and the COVID vaccine are all signs not only of toughness and ruggedness, but also “conservative” politics, you understand something fundamental about American politics.