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Rick Sutcliffe

Some sayings have become so commonplace that they have re-entered the language as their acronyms. For instance, there is the NIMBY syndrome--that quick reaction to the latest garbage dump, gas well, racetrack, power line, or AIDS hospice proposal. "Not In My Backyard!" NIMBY has some legitimacy--some things do not belong in residential backyards. But, it may also reflect a refusal to take any responsibility for society's problems. Everything must be in someone's backyard

Then there's TANSTAAFL--the popular immortalization of the laws of thermodynamics. "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch" reminds us that everything has a cost. Only charlatans build perpetual motion machines, and only voodoo economists spend as if there were perpetual money machines. Family allowance, day care, and old age pensions all cost money. If some live in government subsidized housing on welfare, others foot the bill. Deficits pay for nothing; they only postpone the day of reckoning, ensuring the cost grows ever greater. Those who won't pay for the services they use today force their children and grandchildren to pay tomorrow.

There is a similar voodoo morality. It holds those in positions of trust to a high ethical standard, but also claims there are no absolutly binding moral codes. TANSTAAFL! If there is no such thing as morality then not only are the thief, the liar and the murderer exonerated, but Hitler, Mao, and Stalin were at worst morally neutral, and perhaps even heroes. If there is no universal moral code, there are no enforceable ethics, and there is no basis for law.

This principle was once well recognized. After the Second World War, the war crimes courts rejected the Nazi defense of having merely obeyed the laws--a higher morality judged all law. By it they were found guilty of crimes against humanity. Not many people notice that today's protestor against abortion who appeals to the primacy of a higher law meets the opposite reaction from the courts.

No, morality is not private because ideas produce actions, and so they affect other people. Morality is not just relative or just situational, for there is no difference between either of those and no morality at all. Nor is it just arbitrary, for then the strongest arbiter could dictate the right and the wrong. Perhaps in the "Thou shalt not's" of old one sees forms of TANSTAAFL that are ignored at great cost.

In the same vein, consider NIOHPS (nigh-oops.) Like the other two, it provokes the complacent, moderates extremism, and calms hysteria. Whoever feels safe on the job--whether Prime Minister, MLA, or alderman, fund raiser, newspaper columnist, or corporate executive, land speculator, teacher, or even lawyer--should remember that economies change, voters are fickle, bosses take dislikes, and clients sometimes kiss and make up. NIOHPS.

Those who protest gas wells but accept rail transport of chlorine, decry unnecessary surgery or drug use, but not abortions, oppose new hydro lines but not old pipelines, or are against meat colouring but buy margarine, ought to remember NIOHPS. Those who oppose nuclear power, but use the sun's radiation to get a suntan, are against sexually transmitted diseases, but not the behaviour that communicates them, against polluting pulp mills, but drive their cars to the supermarket, ought to reflect that NIOHPS.

When sure that unprotected computer data is safe or that kids can walk home from school without being beaten up by a junior extortionist; when ignoring God and saying to your soul; "Soul, all is well. Build bigger barns, take your rest, and enjoy life," just remember:

Nothing Is One Hundred Percent Secure. Nothing Is One Hundred Percent Safe. At least, not down here.

--Rick Sutcliffe

Originally published in a different form in Through a Glass, Darkly 1990 04 25


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