Interfering busybodies

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 March, 2010, 12:00am

It's been a bad week for do-gooders and busybodies. Hopefully, there will be more such weeks, because no comfort should be given to anyone who is intent on interfering in the lives of citizens, driven by a sense of superiority which implies that they know best what's good for the rest of us.

At the start of the week Sally Wong, the commissioner for narcotics, was forced to concede that the much hyped scheme for testing schoolchildren for drug use has resulted in not a single positive test. In other words, the scheme, with its gross intrusion on personal liberty, has yielded precisely nothing.

Naturally, Wong did not see it that way and made the unverifiable assertion that testing had helped students in their resolve not to take drugs and assisted drug users to quit. Unfortunately for her, in a separate survey, one in 27 students admitted using drugs, while another poll showed that 60 per cent of those taking drugs were doing so at friends' or their own homes.

The plain fact of the matter is that many young people are tempted to experiment with drugs but, fortunately, only a very small minority go on to become addicts. Instead of accepting this universal phenomenon, the do-gooders are intent on creating a witch-hunt for children who experiment with drugs - no doubt adding to the attraction of forbidden fruit - while failing to focus on the real problem of longer-term addiction.

The school testing scheme which, incredibly, is not being dumped but extended, is described as 'voluntary', but inevitably casts a shadow of suspicion over those who refuse to participate. It turns the presumption of innocence on its head and implies that all those not proven to be innocent must be guilty. As such, it is an abomination that does nothing to tackle the drugs problem but keeps do-gooders and bureaucrats happy.

This same bunch of busybodies has also been obsessed with the issue of smoking. Having urged the government to outlaw the pernicious weed in all public places, some fanatics are even pressing for laws to prevent smoking at home. Meanwhile, they have succeeded in getting officials to increase taxes and severely curb duty-free tobacco allowances. The result? Business is booming in bars where a blind eye is turned to smoking, while those that uphold the law are complaining that they are deep in trouble and laying off staff. The crackdown has also led to an enormous increase in sales of counterfeit cigarettes and smuggled tobacco. The iron law of unintended consequences could not be demonstrated more clearly, but the do-gooders rarely reflect on this. Instead, they insist on stronger laws and tougher enforcement in the blind belief that their grand designs for human engineering will triumph.

Where will it end? This newspaper has called for restrictions on the sale of charcoal because it is the chosen method of suicide for many unfortunate, suicidal people. This call is based on a limited supermarket study in one area. The supermarkets, quite rightly, are resisting restrictions on charcoal sales because the vast majority of buyers are intent on barbecuing as opposed to killing themselves. Then there are calls to increase regulation over how parents behave towards their children, and there are all manner of crusades designed to impose the moral standards of one section of the community on everyone else. A grown-up society that values the liberty of its citizens exercises great caution in imposing standards of behaviour because it is understood that human beings are not perfect and should be allowed the freedom to discover and rectify their own imperfections.

The road to social engineering is pitted with problems. But it is much loved by bureaucrats, who have a superiority complex and value control over freedom. The Hong Kong government turns a blind eye to all forms of exploitation in, for example, the labour market, but is very attentive towards those who wish to impose their morals and standards of personal behaviour on others. True believers in liberty need to emerge from the shadows and insist that this nonsense stops. Otherwise, Big Brother will be playing a much bigger role in all our lives.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur