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Outside the Asylum: the final installment of an epic essay in praise of New Zealand

We conclude an epic essay from the New Zealand Initiative’s Eric Crampton, exploring what life is like in and out of New Zealand. Today: chapters seven and eight. Read chapters one and two here, chapters three and four herechapter five here and chapter six here.

Chapter 7: For your own good

The way [the Nutri-Matic Machine] functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centres of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The Nutri‐Matic was designed and manufactured by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation whose complaints department now covers all the major land masses of the first three planets in the Sirius Tau Star system.

“Listen, you machine,” [Arthur] said, “you claim you can synthesize any drink in existence, so why do you keep giving me the same undrinkable stuff?”
“Nutrition and pleasurable sense data,” burbled the machine. “Share and Enjoy.”
“It tastes filthy!”
“If you have enjoyed the experience of this drink,” continued the machine, why not share it with your friends?”
“Because,” said Arthur tartly, “I want to keep them.”

As a general principle, peaceful people minding their own business, doing no harm to others, should not be interfered with. The sign at the entry to Cave Stream, noted at the start of this report, exemplified that kind of principle. It stood in stark contrast to the American system.

America’s broken tort law means property owners take on a lot of risk for letting anybody do anything risky on their land. This makes it hard to do many fun things. New Zealand’s accident compensation system has avoided that problem. For limited ability to sue for compensation in case of accidents, and a clip from the weekly pay cheque, we all get accident insurance.

It is also arguably one reason New Zealand has a space launch facility in Mahia. Peter Beck, the hero entrepreneur who has brought New Zealand into the space age, has always been a tinkerer. Bloomberg’s profile highlights his first taste of rocketry:

In 1999, at 18, Beck did something most people would consider very stupid. After checking out books from the library to learn how to make his own fuel, he set up a laboratory in a backyard shed and set to work on a rocket engine. Lacking a hazmat suit, he wrapped himself in plastic bags and put on a welding helmet as he distilled peroxide and other chemicals.

After successfully testing one of his engine designs, he decided it was time for a proper adventure. He strapped the engine to the back of a custom-built bicycle, dressed himself in a red jumpsuit and white helmet, and fired up a trial run in a local parking lot. Leaning forward in a near-prone position, he managed to reach about 90 miles an hour. To slow himself down, he first sat upright, allowing wind resistance to do some of the work lest the brake pads or wheels melt. “Only a few people on the planet have put their legs inside a rocket,” Beck says. “It’s a very good feeling.”

New Zealand is the kind of place that builds Peter Becks – and Burt Munros.

Or, at least it used to be.

Health and safety rules have started achieving here what defective tort law in the United States wrought there: excessive risk aversion ruining everything fun.

This year, Dave Hunger’s Stratford dairy farm slash adventure park was killed by health and safety worries. Hunger would occasionally open his farm to the public for cow rides, magic carpet rides behind a tractor, and a flying fox. In March, he closed it – at least until he takes out enough of the fun to satisfy the fun police.

“One or two members of the public came to me and said ‘we think you’re putting yourself in a really vulnerable situation because your gear is uncertified and it’s all home made, it hasn’t been ticked off by an engineer or designed by an architect’,” he said. “So when I stopped and thought about that and realised what would be involved in being prosecuted, it wasn’t an appealing prospect.”

Hunger said he put a hold on the open days he’d been running and had the place checked by health and safety experts who gave him a list of more than 70 different improvements needed to get to a legal standard… He said he understood the government had to find a balance between protecting people and making sure they were still allowed to have fun, but he thought the current law, brought in after the Pike River Mine disaster, went too far.

“It’s a balancing act between keeping people alive and keeping people that are alive enjoying life,” he said. “We’ve got to strike that balance sometimes and I think the balance has gone a bit too far to keep people breathing and not letting people enjoy life.” It had also been difficult to work out which standards he would have to use, as the farm was so unique.

“There are industry standards around flying foxes, with height and what have you, there’s industry standards around rivers and safety, and I’m not sure what industry standard we’re going to use for riding a cow, I don’t think there is one unless they lump us in with jockeys or something,” he laughed.

New Zealand is losing something special because of the 2015 Health and Safety rules. Schools are scared of being sued for letting kids climb trees or enjoy playgrounds. Boy Scouts volunteers worry too. Why? Criminal liability can be huge if anything goes wrong.

While WorkSafe and the Ministry will swear up and down that they never intend such effects, these effects are entirely predictable. Combine massive penalties for getting things wrong with uncertainty about proving you’re right and everyone will hunker down and halt all things fun.

As one Scout leader (and fellow economist) wrote to me when the rules were coming in:

I know you write periodically about crazy laws and being inside the asylum. As you might know, I’m a scout leader. A volunteer. One of things that I have enjoyed in scouting is the ability to let children and youth take risks. You know, tackle bullrush, climbing trees, crossing rivers, hiking, making and playing with gun powder, making their own bows and arrows (one shot an arrow clean through a window without breaking it :) ) and so on.

They might not have any impact, but! Since volunteer organisations fall under the jurisdiction of the health and safety in employment act you can see why the sentencing act changes are a potential problem for them. It also seems to me to undermine the no-fault basis of the ACC scheme. I think ACC has some problems, but the no-fault provision is incredibly useful in not having to worry about frivolous lawsuits to extract payments to avoid the costs of the suits going to court, which then result in noticeable restrictions on people’s activities, such as children playing where there is any tiny risk of an injury!

They keep making changes to health and safety laws which potentially undermine the ability to do this. The first was throwing in volunteers in the Health and Safety in Employment Act back several years ago. That added to our paperwork and probably did restrict some activities at the margin (but not hugely), which was a pain at the margin but that seemed to be all. But they are currently making a couple of other changes which increases costs to volunteer organisations and I’d predict the benefits are negative once they take into account lost consumer surplus from eventual changes and reductions in volunteer activities.

It’s hard now to imagine a teenager being free to muck about with rocket engines.

The Asylum wall needs defending. What we have here is worth protecting. Whatever the rules intend, if the effect is schools clamping down on playground fun, wholesome fun like Hunger’s farm being shut down, and Scouts leaders fearing criminal liability, then the rules need fixing.

Chapter 8: Defending the Asylum Wall

He fished in his pocket for his two pairs of sunglasses … he felt much more comfortable with them on. They were a double pair of Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses, which had been specially designed to help people develop a relaxed attitude to danger. At the first hint of trouble they turn totally black and thus prevent you from seeing anything that might alarm you.

New Zealand’s Outside of the Asylum status is not to be taken for granted. The Wall needs constant vigilance. While enjoying what we have, we need to leave the peril-sensitive sunglasses at home.

Sometimes, the best defence is a good offence. So I suggest we revisit New Zealand’s tourism campaigns and officially brand New Zealand as the ‘Outside of the Asylum’. It is the right time.

The tourism ads practically write themselves.

Picture a European family on a trip to the Orlando Disney World. The kids are all excited with their little Mickey Mouse hats with big ears. When they reach customs, the American security officer standing in front of a picture of President Trump sees a stamp from dad’s work trip to Iran. They’re hauled into a little room, subjected to indignities, and sent back to Europe on a United Airlines flight – with another passenger on the flight hauled off and beaten.

Their neighbours flew to Taupo on Air New Zealand, were welcomed by friendly customs officers and biosecurity staff, who give their boots a free cleaning, and had a wonderfully sane experience. They came to a place where things just work as they should – and as they used to elsewhere. The sign at the customs entry gate: Welcome to the Outside of the Asylum.

Taking that brand to heart, we must watch more carefully for threats to the Asylum wall. Would we ban medium-rare hamburgers if our coveted Outside of the Asylum status were at risk? I don’t think so. It is easy to forget how lucky we are here. We have to keep the peril-sensitive sunglasses off and be vigilant. We have to stop the chipping of the Asylum wall.

Parts of New Zealand are less sane than they used to be – but other parts have improved. New Zealand’s approach to prostitution regulation is far more sensible than in most countries. New Zealand brought in civil unions and marriage equality before many other countries – and nobody did it with more style. Parliament’s waiata was beautiful.

Even a pessimist would agree that, at worst, the rest of the world is growing mad faster than we are.

New Zealand is the world’s last sane place. Let’s keep it that way.


This concludes ‘Outside the Asylum’ – listen to the whole essay below


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