By Eric Peters
Whether it’s prudent to wear a seatbelt, or put on a helmet, if you ride motorcycles, is entirely beside the point — at least as regards laws that make the use of these things compulsory.
Of course wearing a seatbelt or a helmet is “safer.” But so is maintaining ideal body weight — or exercising regularly. Yet there are no laws (as yet) requiring you to eat your broccoli — or do sit-ups every other day. The police do not carry pincers to measure your body fat ratio — and have no authority (yet) to give you tickets for exceeding the “healthful” poundage.
Why is that? After all, if the justification for seatbelt laws and so on is that they’re for your own good, the same argument can be made about such things as dietary habits and exercise. Ditto other personal choices, such as the type of recreational sports or other activities you may be involved in — many of which, like rock-climbing, motocrossing, or skiing, for example, are arguably “risky,” or at least more “dangerous” than sitting at home reading a book. How come there are no government busybodies issuing tickets to people for doing such things as jogging when it’s “too cold” — or without the “proper” (according to whom?) equipment? Where do we draw the line — and on what basis?
These examples will hopefully illustrate an important point — maybe even several.
The first is that things like seatbelt laws and helmet laws are, in the first place, entirely arbitrary interferences with personal choices (as distinct from behaviors, actions or conduct that might affect others, which is another matter. For example: It is entirely legitimate for an airline to require seat belt use on a commercial flight; you are, after all, riding on their airplane — and if you get bounced out of your seat, you might cause injury to others, or endanger the aircraft. But such considerations do not apply to the private individual operating his privately owned automobile — or on his motorcycle. If he gets hurt, only he gets hurt. Others are not affected. Ergo, the state has no justification to intervene).
If we’re going to accept as the basis for public policy the idea that it is the duty of government to involve itself in our private choices on the basis of compelling us all to do what’s “good” for us (however that’s defined), then it’s pretty hard to see how to draw any line at all beyond which the self-appointed busybodies and do-gooders who use the force of government as their cudgel may not transgress.
That prospect ought to frighten thinking people who value freedom — but so far, most Americans are indifferent; they think seatbelt laws and the like “make sense.”
Well, so does a low-fat diet. The broader principle — and potential threat — escapes them. They don’t see that laws without clear justifications based on legitimate public interests — and with clearly defined boundaries — are the hallmark not of free societies with limited governments, but of societies in which the government can be both arbitrary and omnipotent. The eventual tendency is a slow slide toward totalitarianism. But to point this out is derided as “alarmist.”
I oppose seatbelt laws and helmet laws not because I won’t admit it’s safer to wear a seat belt or a helmet when riding a bike — that would be idiotic. Rather, I oppose such laws because a very important principle is at stake: That entirely personal choice is none of the government’s business — just as my diet, exercise habits, and other personal choices that may somewhat increase (or decrease) my exposure to risk/danger are likewise none of the government’s business, either.
Or yours, for that matter.
Remember that what we call “the government” is just us, collectively. We elect representatives. They pass laws. But ultimately, “the government” is no wiser or more righteous than each of us individually.
It’s just a reflecting pool of sorts — with all the distortions and flaws that implies. If we start using the weight of the state to force our neighbors to conform to our own ideas of “smart” personal conduct (again, as distinct from conduct that clearly affects others), then we will have become little more than a collection of back-biting harpies and nattering busybodies, using the power of the state to oppress one another in unimaginably petty (and perhaps not so petty) ways. This is why the founders of the American state set forth strict limits on government — precisely enumerating what it could and could not do, and why.
What made the United States so unique in world history was that it enshrined in its governing principles the idea that individuals should be left free to live their own lives as they saw fit, free of interference from those who thought they “knew better.”
Taking risks (or not) was part of that philosophy. We were a live and let live people — for awhile. Only when an individual’s conduct or actions clearly threatened the safety or well-being of others — and thus became a public matter — did the state have cause to interfere. That distinction is what we’re losing — and it may cost us dearly.
To those who counter that it’s a matter of public concern — and therefore the legitimate busness of government — whether a person buckles up or wears a helmet, because if he is injured “society” will have to pay in the form of his medical bills and so on, the reply is simple: By any quantifiable measure, obesity and sedentary living (to cite just one example) “cost society” far more, in terms of health care and other related costs, than the relative handful of deaths and serious injuries caused or made worse by the failure of some people to buckle up or wear a helmet.
Fundamentally, though, the premise that “society” is responsible for the costs of each individual’s personal choices is socialistic. If we go that way, there will be no limit to the Nanny State.
Do we want government officials inspecting our cupboards and refrigerators for “dangerous” foods? Or checking our cholesterol and waistlines? No? Then seat belt laws, mandatory helmet regulations and the like must be rescinded — no matter how much we may instinctively wish to promote our neighbor’s well-being. That’s his business — not yours. Not the governments. Leave him alone. And hopefully, he’ll return the favor.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Eric Peters, 33, is a Washington, D.C.-based, nationally-syndicated automotive columnist. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, the Detroit Free Press and The Washington Times.