Commentary

What We Should Fear Is Big Government

By Stephen Moore
September 10, 1999
Opinion studies indicate that many Americans are terrified of flying. But there’s good news from the Federal Aviation Administration for those nervous Nellies. Last year there were 14 million commercial airline flights carrying 615 million passengers. How many deaths? A big fat zero. The chances of dying by electrocuting yourself in the bathtub, being crushed to death by the airbag in your car or being hit on the head by a meteorite were about the same as by taking a ride on an airplane.

America has become a nation of worrywarts. We worry about everything from global warming to the amount of fat in our breakfast cereal to the radiation emanating from our computers. A recent poll featured in USA Today confirms that we are concerned about the strangest things. More than half of Americans say that successful cloning is one of their biggest dreads for the 21st century. What is completely inexplicable is that 55 percent of Americans cited “technology” as one of their worries. How’s that for unfounded paranoia? Technology saves lives, it doesn’t cost them.

Maybe our greatest risk in the modern age is that of worrying ourselves to death. The risks we now face in our daily lives are minuscule compared with the risks of earlier times. In fact, the world is a much safer place today than it was at any time in history. Many of the things we fret about today, such as flying on a commercial airline, are not dangerous at all. If you don’t believe me, consider the following statistics:

  • In 1997 we had the safest year on the highways ever recorded. There were fewer deaths per million miles traveled than ever before. The death rate on the roads is about three times lower today than it was 30 years ago.
  • The murder rate has plummeted in recent years. In 1997 the murder rate was 6.8 per 100,000 people compared with 10.7 percent in 1990—a 40 percent reduction.
  • The 1990s were the safest decade in recorded history in terms of workplace accidents and deaths. The death rate from work-related accidents was five times higher in the 1930s and two times higher in the 1970s than it is today.
  • Fatal accidents at home have also dropped dramatically. These days about 10 of every 100,000 Americans die each year from accidents at home, compared with twice that number in the “good old days” of the 1950s.

What else do you worry about? War? Floods and tornadoes? AIDS? Nuclear accidents? Acts of terrorism? Sudden Infant Death Syndrome? Contaminated air and water? Heart attack? Believe it or not, the death rate from every single one of those menaces is down—in most cases way down. In the last 20 years modern medicine has made giant strides in treating and preventing heart disease. It remains a major killer only because, as life expectancies increase, we become more prone to this degenerative disease.

Worrywarts have shifted their phobias to obscure and distant threats posed by things like global climate change, alien invasions, cloning and secondhand smoke. Most of the threats that were really serious and frightening earlier in this century are no longer problems at all. My parents often told gruesome tales of growing up in the 1930s when polio was still a dreaded killer. Everyone knew someone who had been paralyzed and confined to an iron lung or a wheelchair. The Centers for Disease Control tells us that there was not a single reported case of polio in the United States in 1997.

One of the leading causes of death in America today is poverty. The best way to continue to reduce the risk of injury and early death is to promote economic growth and rising living standards through free-market capitalism. Paradoxically, many of the safety, health and environmental regulations that come out of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration do not reduce risk. They are so cost-ineffective that they make us poorer and thereby put people at greater risk of death than if we had never issued those regulations at all. Smart regulations save lives. Dumb regulations cost lives.

Now, if after reading this you are still nervous about the sky falling and the world (or your own world) coming to an end, my advice is to board an airplane. These days, that’s probably the safest place you can be.

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.