“Government should establish regulations to reduce or eliminate any suspected health hazards in the environment, even when the scientific studies of these health hazards are incomplete or contradictory.”
Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the opinion stated above. Support your views with reasons and/or examples from your own experience, observations, or reading.
When considering the philosophy of government intervention, it is important to remember the words of Sir Edmund Burke: “I am a representative; not a delegate.” This famous (possibly paraphrased) and important quote shows that the role of government is to make decisions with the best interests of its constituents (the voters) at heart. On surface value, it may seem that I am advocating blanket regulations at the very whiff of a public health hazard. This is not true.
When making its decision on when to regulate the environment, government needs to act neutrally and with both the financial and physical health of the country at heart. In many ways, government is like a publicly traded company – with fiscal responsibility towards the tax payers (shareholders) and social responsibility for the voters (customers).
Questions that any government considering an intervention should consider include:
Is this issue a serious threat to the health of the community?
How will intervening in this matter affect all the stakeholders – will the financial burden be outweighed by the health benefit? What is the opportunity cost of intervening?
On my first question: if there are doubts as to the scientific veracity of the alleged hazard, the government should seek to mediate between the two sides, being cautious as to the conflict of interests that may arise. If a mobile phone carrier produces evidence to disprove a claim that cell-phone towers cause leukemia in the surrounding population, this clearly needs to be taken with scepticism – despite the size of the mobile phone carrier’s electoral donations.
When ruling on such issues, the government should seek to be as neutral and impartial as possible – forming committees or funding further investigation into allegations but always acting with the public’s best interest at heart.
However, if peer-reviewed scientific evidence disproves such a health hazard, then the government would be within its rights, and moral obligation, to not institute regulations surrounding the hazard.
My second question, regarding the opportunity cost of intervention, is a less definitive one. In the case of an industry practice causing a health hazard, it is easy to regulate against it – either through excessive taxation or specific legislation. But what if the hazard is not being perpetuated by “big business”?
Take the case of a gang of youths wandering the local community. These youths do not specifically break the law, but their threatening attitude could be considered to be hazardous to public health. Should government pre-emptively regulate their behaviour through Anti-Social Behavioural Orders (ASBOs) as in the UK? That would certainly be in the public interest and would, if validated by a positive answer to my first question, be a legitimate course of action.
But the opportunity cost of such a drastic intervention is the civil liberty of the group. Individually, they have done nothing wrong but as a group, their behaviour is clearly a health hazard.
In the case of global warming, there are many scientists, and Nobel prize winners, who would have the general public and world leaders, believe the case for global warming and its alarming effects. However, the case for global warming is far from proven. Many scientists doubt the research presented as conclusive proof of global warming and the predictions that are derived from it. A number research scientists even went as far as to ask for their names to be removed from the UN’s final report on the issue.
So what should world leaders do in such an emotive situation – after all, this is a health hazard of the most serious nature. Our planet is dying cry one party. No, says the other party, the world is simply going through another cycle in just the same way it has for hundreds of millions of years.
The opportunity cost of stopping activities that may lead to global warming is huge. Many valubale and limited resources must be put into activities to simply meet the Kyoto agreement and in doing so may irrevocably damage the nation’s economy. In this case, I would advocate a safety first approach. Encourage members of the public to reduce their use of fossil fuels (carbon footprints) through recycling, energy efficient activities, carpooling, cycling and the like. Use tax breaks or tradable credits to encourage businesses to change their processes and reduce their carbon footprints – all the while funding additional research that can be approved by the two (literally in this case) warring factions.
The safety and well-being of the public must come first but at what opportunity cost?