The right to decide for yourself

3rd December 1999

It appears that a mixture of compo culture and safety culture is going to succeed where communism and fascism failed – in destroying personal freedom.

The recent decisions at Croke Park underline the erosion of choice and the power of faceless bureaucrats to run our lives. Firstly it emerged that An Bord Plenala are insisting that Hill 16 be seated and then the Croke Park authorities themselves banned supporters from coming onto the field after matches.

Both these decisions illustrate how little personal autonomy and choice matter to those in authority. On the Hill 16 decision no attempt was made to suggest changes to the Hill to make it safer; no attempt to value tradition; no attempt to allow choice or to invoke a ‘buyer beware’ concept.

The rot set in on the day that the public accepted the argument on the mandatory wearing of seatbelts. This was quickly followed by the law on helmets for motorcyclists. Now you can’t sell home-made buns on the street, you can’t smoke at bingo and you can’t buy a electrical device with a re-usable plug.

Plans are afoot to remove the red from red lemonade and garlic tablets are to be controlled as a medicine. The old doors on trains are to be phased out and the Minister is looking at the licensing of small boats.

Young people are to be controlled like cattle less they should want a pint of beer at the age of sixteen. All sorts of drugs are outlawed for personal use.

All these laws and regulations are apparently for the purpose of keeping us alive. But what they ignore is that without freedom there is no point in living.

And of course, as policy these laws usually come about as a short cut, an attempt to cover up some other failure or the age-old conservative idea that the only way to deal with something unpleasant is to ban it.

Take Hill 16, for example. The proper course of action would be to evaluate the dangers in the current set-up, to calculate the crowd dynamics involved and to reduce the capacity to safe levels. This would have accommodated all concerned and people could choose whether to sit or stand.

It is difficult to understand the mindset of the people who make decisions like these but throughout the civil service, the upper management of large organisations and in politicians there is a fierce desire to control the behaviour of individuals.

Perhaps the only remedy is to control the controllers. What Ireland needs is a constitutional amendment that prevents the Government from legislating over individual preferences and forces all organisations to offer choice.

Of course, the corollary of personal choice is personal responsibility. The GAA cited as one of its reasons for banning the public from the pitch at Croke Park the personal injuries claims that people had lodged against it.

Now this is a valid point. In court the individual’s right to compensation has been elevated to the point that awards of thousands of pounds have been made for relatively trivial injuries. The effect has been to reduce the rights of everyone else.

Playgrounds have been shut, farmers deny access to walkers and many local projects are weighed down by public liability premiums.

Curiously the same ideology is at work – the idea that adults are not really up to making their own decisions. So now we have the spectacle of Alex Higgins, lifelong and continuing smoker, claiming that someone else was responsible for his smoking related illness.

This lesson is simple. Let the individual decide and let the individual take the consequences.