How Swimming Rules Explain Freedom

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Ready? The Economist's M.S. has figured out a way to use a lazy summer afternoon at Walden Pond to explain over-regulation in America.

You are no longer able to swim across Walden Pond, it turns out:

There you are, under a deep blue New England summer sky, the lake laid out like a mirror in front of you and the rocks on the far shore gleaming under a bristling comb of red pine; you plunge in, strike out across the water, and tweet! A parks official blows his whistle and shouts after you. "Sir! Sir! Get back inside the swimming area!" What is this, summer camp? Henry David Thoreau never had to put up with this. It offends the dignity of man and nature.

Are park officials convinced you can't swim? No, explains M.S. "They're trying to minimise the risk that you might sue." People, of course, seem rather prone in America to sue when they do something unintelligent. The problem isn't simply over-regulation, therefore, but an overly-litigious culture, and "a refusal to accept personal responsibility."

To illustrate his point, M.S. posts a photo of his daughter swimming in the Amstel river in the Netherlands. Swimming in the Potomac in DC, he muses, would probably get him arrested, but in the Netherlands, "as long as you don't do something gratuitously stupid or make a flagrant nuisance of yourself, nobody's going to stop you." Any suit against the city of Amsterdam over a child's injury while swimming "would almost certainly be dismissed." On matters of pollution, however, regulation is necessary and welcome. He explains:

To generalise: for risks I can assess myself, I don't want regulations that prevent me from doing as I please just because I might end up suing the government. For risks I can't assess myself, I do want regulations that give me the confidence to do as I please. One kind of regulation stops me from swimming in a pond in Massachusetts. The other kind lets me swim in a river in the Netherlands. One kind of regulation makes me less free. The other kind makes me freer.

Are Americans simply regulating the wrong things?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.