A recurring theme in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (see some earlier postings here about this book, here and here) concerns how a modern and humane principle, cruelly ignored in the past, then gets over-emphasised. Such a price is worth paying for the triumph of the principle, says Pinker, but the price is indeed a price, not an improvement.
An example being the extreme lengths now gone to in order entirely to eliminate child abductions by strangers (p. 538):
And even if minimizing risk were the only good in life, the innumerate safety advisories would not accomplish it. Many measures, like the milk-carton wanted posters, are examples of what criminologists call crime-control theater: they advertise that something is being done without actually doing anything. When 300 million people change their lives to reduce a risk to 50 people, they will probably do more harm than good, because of the unforeseen consequences of their adjustments on the vastly more than 50 people who are affected by them. To take just two examples, more than twice as many children are hit by cars driven by parents taking their children to school as by other kinds of traffic, so when more parents drive their children to school to prevent them from getting killed by kidnappers, more children get killed. And one form of crime-control theater, electronic highway signs that display the names of missing children to drivers on freeways, may cause slowdowns, distracted drivers, and the inevitable accidents.
The movement over the past two centuries to increase the valuation of children’s lives is one of the great moral advances in history. But the movement over the past two decades to increase the valuation to infinity can lead only to absurdities.
We here nod sagely. This book is full of cherries like that, pickable by people who think along Samizdata lines. But it also includes fruits to please those deviating from correct opinions in quite other directions.
With regard to the matter of children’s rights, libertarians like me are fond of urging property rights solutions for problems not now considered properly soluble by such means, such as preserving endangered species or sorting out such things as the right to transmit radio waves. But it is worth remembering that we applaud the fading of the idea that parents own their children, to the point where they may destroy them with impunity, as if binning unwanted household junk. And yes, such a right to kill faded because it could. The world can now afford to keep all newborns alive. That doesn’t make this any less of an improvement. Well done us. We can understand why so many people were child killers in the past, and still rejoice that times have changed.
The pages where Pinker describes the murderous cruelties inflicted upon many newborns are very vivid. I will never think of the ceremony of christening in quite the same way. He reminds us that what is being said with it is: this one’s a keeper.
A bit of crime-control theater is surely a small price to pay for the pleasure of living in less cruel times.