Now and again (and again) I rail against the Precautionary Principle (PP) as do others:

Once you get past the table-pounding, any rationale for rapid emissions abatement that confronts the facts in evidence is really a more or less sophisticated restatement of the precautionary principle: the somewhat grandiosely named idea that the downside possibilities are so bad that we should pay almost any price to avoid almost any chance of their occurrence…

The precautionary principle is a bottomless well of anxieties, but our resources are finite — it’s possible to buy so much flood insurance that you can’t afford fire insurance.

The PP pops up in all sorts of guises, usually involving someone else’s money being spent by force to achieve an outcome which otherwise might not happen.

A classic one as heard on the BBC is the lament of someone in a remote Scottish village, insisting that the sole telephone box be kept open even though almost no-one uses it:

"What if a hitch-hiker had an accident and that telephone was the only way to call help?! You’re heartless! How dare you put human lives at risk just to save a little money!"


This sort of howl of primitive indignation is not easy to answer in practice. No politician wants to say:

"Sure, I maybe am putting a life at risk by not subsidising that remote telephone kiosk. But I judge that risk to be pretty small.

Oh, and the money saved by not paying for that kiosk can go to countless other public or even private services where the likelihood of saving lives is rather higher. So get lost".

That sort of reply has the supreme virtue of being true and sensible, but the obvious downside that when the media then roll in a corpse of someone lost for lack of handy immobile telephone communication, the politician looks and feels pretty ghastly. Give them the bloody kiosk, and let’s move on.

In other words, irrationality suits too many people too much of the time, especially when we can all borrow from our doltish grandchildren to pay for it. Hence the drama of out-of-control compounding government debt.

What is so dishonest about the PP is its selective use.

Thus many of those who clamour for socialistic health-care refuse to acknowledge that under such systems top-end medicine and other benefits are going to be lost, and that even though everyone is covered (good) there will be many people (rich and poor) who will die (bad) because procedures are unavailable because unaffordable.

All outcomes have pros and cons. It’s all about costing the choices in a coherent and sustainable way.

And about educating the public to look at ‘risk’ intelligently. A hopeless task, it seems.

Of course the huge advantage of socialistic healthcare is that the top people who preside over it can always call in doctors from different, more flexible systems elsewhere in case of emergency, even if the mass of citizens is denied that opportunity.

Some animals are more equal than others.