Reality Check: The two sides of protection

Could anyone possibly be against something named “Safe Food for Canadians”?

The recent discussion around potentially negative impacts of new food safety regulations on small food producers is a good reminder that just because something has an appealing name doesn’t mean it’s truly appealing.

Regulations, in fact—choices of any kind—seldom come without tradeoffs.

Tradeoffs are everywhere. Even the basic human needs identified by choice theory can be perceived as trading off against each other.

For example, we have a need for security and a need for freedom. A person with a high level of the security need might perceive a regulation completely differently from a person who has a high need for freedom.

Using the safe food example, a high need for security could encourage me to say, “I want the government to guarantee that my food is safe.” If safety is guaranteed, that takes a load off my mind. I can buy any food I have the money for, whether it’s “good” for me or not. It’s been declared safe; I don’t have to think about it. And if something bad happens, I can always sue.

The tradeoff is that a government guarantee of safety limits your choices. You can only buy that which has been approved.

On the other side, a high need for freedom could encourage me to say, “I want access to more choices; I don’t need the government to tell me what’s good for me.” The tradeoff there, of course, is that the responsibility for my own safety and protection shifts from someone else—a government agency—to me!

This interesting tradeoff demonstrates why people are sometimes at odds. Differences of opinion show up in answers to questions such as, “Do I value freedom over security? Who is responsible for my protection and safety?” and “Am I prepared to give up freedom for assurance?”

As our culture continues to develop, my perception is that it’s shifting responsibility away from individuals and implying that protection is someone else’s (often government’s) job. However, I’m not sure that everyone is aware of the consequent tradeoff—loss of freedom.

If we instead choose to adopt a stance of being responsible for our choices, then we also assume the risks of those choices. This might lead to people being a bit more circumspect about their choices!

Freedom also enables innovation. Unrestricted producers are free to try new things. Consumers are free to respond by opening their wallets, or not.

The extremes, of course, are unrealistic. I wouldn’t suggest a completely unregulated food system any more than I would suggest that the government regulate the tomatoes in our backyards.

Win-win is easy to say but hard to achieve, primarily because different people value different things. Wouldn’t it be great if the freedom-lovers could buy and sell what they want, with the assurance that everyone is clear about their accompanying responsibility?

Wouldn’t it also be great if the security-lovers were able to confidently choose only products that meet their needs for regulatory conformance?

What extraordinary arrangement could enable such flexibility? How about a sign that says, “Fair warning, this food product is not inspected by any regulatory agency.”

As a consumer under this arrangement, you have the freedom to buy or not, based on your perceptions of the product and the producer. You decide. You take responsibility for your decision.

That sounds like a win-win to me. How does it sound to you?

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