Let them eat peanuts

Posted: Aug 21, 2002 12:00 AM
The principal of the Nickajack Elementary School outside Atlanta recently decreed that no student would be permitted to bring peanuts or peanut butter to school. She is not alone. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, schools in "at least nine states" now ban peanuts and peanut butter. The reason? A few students are highly allergic to peanuts, and if not treated in time, the reaction can lead to death. Lest 1 or 2 percent of the students have a bad reaction to peanuts (a reaction that is entirely treatable by the school nurse), the cheapest, tastiest, healthiest food that most kids like -- the peanut butter and jelly sandwich -- is now forbidden in some American schools. We have here in microcosm five highly destructive developments in modern American life: 1. Social policies determined by "compassion." To the Nickajack Elementary School's principal and the many other Americans who support a peanut ban, the issue is simple: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on one side, the health of some students on the other. Compassion obviously dictates a peanut ban. More and more Americans want more and more of American social policy -- from schools to government -- to be guided by compassion. But compassion-first advocates do not understand that while compassion can and usually should determine personal behavior, it must almost never determine society's behavior. When compassion determines social policy, it is almost always destructive. Because compassion is by definition highly selective, it is not possible to be equally compassionate to everyone. When dealing with the public, compassion to some people inevitably means injustice to others. For example, if compassion for the sufferers of one disease determines society's funding of research into that disease, sufferers of other diseases will receive less compassion and therefore unjustly receive less funding. Banning peanuts is unjust, even mean, to the 98 percent of elementary school students for whom peanut butter is the most practical source of protein they will eat at school. It is cheap, delicious, and won't spoil as meat or cheese might. For the sake of a few students, thousands are seriously inconvenienced. 2. Compassion or selfishness? To deny nearly every student at an elementary school the right to eat their favorite healthy food is labeled compassion, and the educators who push for the ban may well be motivated by compassion. But the activists who demand the community's compassion are simply selfish. On my radio show, I spoke to a parent whose child is highly allergic to peanuts, and who supports school bans on peanuts. After a few minutes of challenges, he acknowledged that he is simply being selfish. I saluted his honesty. Would that the rest of us acknowledge the selfishness that is at the root of so many policies determined by compassion. 3. Compassion trumps all. Compassion trumps all other considerations, especially facts and reason. The fact is that there is an antidote to peanut poisoning that every school can easily administer. The fact is that banning peanuts actually makes schools less safe for nut-allergic students, since they then let their guard down and think they can eat other students' food. And reason suggests that if we ban peanuts, we should also ban school picnics to protect those who can die from bee stings. But to raise such objections only shows that one is not compassionate. 4. Fear of lawsuits. As powerful as compassion is, neither it nor justice dominates school, company or government policies today as much as fear of trial lawyers. Parents now sue schools for their children's poor grades. Surely they will for allergic reactions. 5. The pursuit of a risk-free world. Perhaps it has been this generation's unprecedented affluence. Perhaps it has been the absence of widespread suffering in America since World War II. Whatever the reason, more and more Americans have been preoccupied with abolishing all risks to their well-being. Americans increasingly feel that no price is too high to pay to ensure no risk. Such thinking, however, is very wrong. With fewer and fewer risks demanding ever more money and ever more legislation, the prices we are paying are getting ever steeper. Just ask the tens of thousands of schoolchildren now eating junk instead of peanut butter. If your kid is allergic to peanuts, have the school stock epinephrine. Don't deprive all the other children of peanuts. That's not compassionate; it's selfish.