Of all the theories propounded by the dismal science of economics the most depressing is the law of diminishing returns, implying as it does poor returns for greater effort and hopes disappointed. And yet, there is one industry where the law is biting with ferocity and all right-minded people should throw their hats in the air and cheer it on.
The industry is scaremongering, and my, how it has grown these past 30 years or so. From small beginnings as a cottage industry, with one or two operatives scattered here and there turning out handmade scares, it has waxed into a multi-national behemoth employing hundreds of thousands across the globe.
Night and day the factories thunder, the steeple-high smokestacks belch forth great clouds of hot air, in cavernous halls mile after mile of operatives bend to the task of moulding raw statistics into glistening phobias, and across the globe fearful faces are lined with imported worry. Or they were until the law of diminishing returns asserted its irresistible force.
We have had it up to here with warnings that every aspect of life great or small, and especially those thought enjoyable, is harmful and possibly lethally so. We cannot eat or drink, we cannot sit down and rest, we cannot exert ourselves, we cannot bask in the sun’s warming rays, unless we do all of those things and many more besides in the prescribed manner and to the prescribed extent. And who are these people laying down the rules? Like the tribes of Israel, their number is legion.
They are in the medical fraternity – doctors who, wearied of the quotidian task of healing, find excitement in frightening us; they are in the public services – health and safety professionals paid to see danger where none has been seen before; they are in voluntary organisations – self-appointed lobbyists who, unable or unwilling to find productive employment, wish to draw attention to themselves; they are in the media – editors who think that in addition to pictures of Kate Middleton, what the public most wants is to be scared; they are in politics, men and women who wish to shape and order society and are natural bullies.
What all of these people have in common is a taste for power. Knowledge is power – scares begin as something you know that other people don’t – and the excuse to make people good, whether they like it or not, is a pretext for the exercise of power. What they don’t realise is that power, like some other things one could mention, makes you blind. The scaremongers cannot see that they are no longer taken seriously. We have global warming to thank for that. It was the ultimate scare, the scare to end all scares, the scare for which the power-crazed had yearned. The end of the Earth is nigh and we are all to blame. Praise be! Now we can be bullied and taxed, cajoled and hectored, browbeaten and cowed, and all in the name of saving the planet.
But with the holy grail of scaremongering came a gold standard by which every other scare was judged and measured, and of course none could equal it, though one crackpot tried. Health secretary and former postman Alan Johnson said recently: “We are facing a potential crisis on the scale of climate change, and it is in everybody’s interest to turn things round.”
“Oh yeah?” we yawned, between spoonfuls of breakfast cereal, “and what might that be, a shortfall in ministerial pensions, the return of John Prescott?” No, it was the great obesity time-bomb, a frontrunner for the most sleep-inducing bore of this infant millennium, and we all turned the page.
Two days later, the absurd Dawn Primarolo, who though sounding like the brand name of a conservatory blind is far less useful in her role as public health minister, declared that middle-class Britons, the good folk of places such as Surrey Heath and Guildford, were drinking hazardous quantities of alcohol.
“Oh yeah?” we yawned, drawing the cork from a bottle of Sainsbury’s Montepulciano, and what might that be, a bucket of gin a day, a quart of meths? No, two glasses of wine. We all turned the page. Well, no, that’s not quite right. We all fell about laughing. The chintz curtains of Middle England shook with our mirth, the coach lamps by our front doors trembled and rattled, the very privets bent beneath the onslaught of hoots and guffaws.
Were we not so well bred we might have urged Miss Primarolo – Red Dawn as she was know in her CND days and a woman who has never had a proper job – to shove her warnings up her arse. Hooray for the law of diminishing returns.