Liberty and Responsibility

There’s so much conversation about individual liberty being trampled these days. Personally I’m not feeling it myself but you hear a lot about it from conservatives and libertarians. Health care reform is discussed this way, so are things like helmet laws, financial deregulation, etc. All of these – and more – are presented as examples of the government overstepping its bounds and stopping people from doing the things their way.

Last night I was watching Frontline’s program The Vaccine War. It was excellent – using published research from around the world to debunk the alleged connect between vaccines and autism. Toward the end there was a public health official speaking with several mothers who had opted not to have their children vaccinated. He raised the question – what if your choice not to vaccinate results in illness for a child that cannot be vaccinated?

The response was that they were responsible parent and wouldn’t let their child be around other kids if they were sick. The public health official pointed out the often people are capable of transmitting an illness before they show any symptoms. To which there really was no very effective response.

There ought to be some mechanism for people to exercise their desired level of freedom while still assuming responsibility for their actions. This mechanism ought to be onerous enough to force people think hard about the potential consequences of their decisions.

My thought is that anyone wishing to exercise their “full freedom” sign an affidavit stating they understand that they will be held personally liable for any consequences of their actions. For example, if someone wishes to ride a motorcycle without a helmet they would be financially responsible for the cost of the emergency services and/or treatment to the extent it isn’t covered by their insurance.

Or if a child becomes ill as the result of exposure to a disease carried by an unvaccinated person that person (or their legal guardians) would be held responsible for any cost associated with treatment. This responsibility could be guaranteed by agreeing to a lien on any property or through the purchase of supplemental insurance to cover the potential outcome of their actions.

This would give people the freedom to act as they desire without placing the burden of the results of their actions on others. It irritates me that people want to have their cake and eat it too. It would annoy me less if they were forced to pay for the cake (and its consequences).

Oxford English Dictionary Fail

More than 20 years ago, my father – a dedicated bibliophile – gave me The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. If you’re not familiar with this dictionary, it’s the two volume version of the full Oxford English Dictionary. It’s published in microtype and ships with a magnifying glass.

I’ve used the dictionary happily for years. A few weeks ago though I ran into a problem. I was looking up the word “flimp” and couldn’t find it. Not only could I not find that word, I couldn’t find any of the words that should have been around it. In fact, I discovered that there were at least 40 pages missing (from page 1022 to page 1063) in volume one.

I contacted the publisher here in the US to make sure they were aware of the problem and to find out how they would correct it. What I was offered was a more recent edition at half price:

“As I understand it the version you have is more than 20 years old and out of print. I am sorry the error was not found and a new edition provided when we had them available. I was told I could offer you the 50% discount on a updated edition if you so choose. You wouldn’t ordinarily receive such a large discount from Oxford. I am sorry however, Customer Service is not authorized to replace such a high ticketed item that is now out of print. Please let me know if you decide to place an order, I will be happy to assist you.”

One thing that’s interesting about this response is the acknowledgement that they would have provided a replacement had the error been found at some undefined point in the past. Of course all of this could have been avoided had the publisher not distributed a faulty edition in the first place. It’s an interesting idea though: sell a defective product and then offer to sell the same product again at a discount. Am I the only one who finds this approach ridiculous?

When I said this was unacceptable here’s what I was told:

“We understand your frustration, and it should also be noted that the edition that you have was used as a promotion piece for Book of the Month Club and without any proof of purchase there is no way that we can verify that you or your father did actually buy the dictionary more than 20 years ago.
I’m sorry you find the offer unacceptable, but that’s the best we can do.”

I like that suggestion that perhaps I am lying – that my father did not necessarily purchase the books. Classy. I wrote back again saying the offer was unacceptable and that I’d be sharing my story. The response was terse:

“We absolutely stand behind the product. [Clearly they do not.] And you are free to publish that on any website you want. [Thanks for the clarification . . .]”

To me this is absurd. If a product is discovered to be faulty at a fundamental and avoidable level then the manufacturer (or publisher in this case) ought to take steps to repair or replace the product. Suggesting that the customer is lying and that they should repurchase the product (even at a discount) is insulting.

The Oxford English Dictionary is not an everyday product. It isn’t something that one replaces every few years. A dictionary that is missing words is not a very good dictionary and the OED has a reputation as the best there is for the English language. It’s unfortunate that in the past they distributed a defective product; it’s unfortunate that neither I (nor apparently anyone else) discovered this defect earlier; but at the end of the day providing a complete dictionary of the English language is their business and responsibility. As they assured me in our correspondence, they “absolutely stand behind the product.” Perhaps it would be helpful if they understood what those words mean.