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Seatbelt laws, firearms, and the Nanny State


What's weird about this is that nobody is making a murder-suicide disctinction except Balaker. The distinction doesn't vanish, it was never there in the first place. Once you leave libertarian fantasyland, people understand that reducing death is valuable, regardless of whether those deaths come from the murder column or the suicide column of the spreadsheet. And reducing the social cost of driving on public roads without seatbelts is a legitimate social function.

This is an argument applied in similar form to lots of things -- everything from seatbelts to guns to skydiving to small-plane aerobatics to fatty foods. Libertarians call this the "Nanny State" problem; that is, a government that seeks to protect its citizens from harm, whether those citizens would choose to be protected or not, as a babysitter would for a child. Here are the usual counterpoints:

We are adults, not children.

ALthough it is appropriate to enforce certain behaviors on children, because they are not sufficiently intelligent to measure and weigh the risks on their own, the same cannot be applied to adults. Adults are fully capable of making their own decisions based on their own circumstances. Sometimes, they are stupid decisions -- but those tend to be self-correcting.

Everything in life is risky; who decides how much risk is acceptable?

There's a certain amount of risk associated with just about everything we do. Who should decide what amount of risk is acceptable? If driving without a seatbelt fastened is worth being stopped by police and fined, how much social effort should we expend to prevent people from engaging in more risky activities (eg, skydiving)? What is the social benefit to preventing people from engaging in such behaviors?

Are we prepared, for example, to accept the consequences of preventing the Wright brothers from trying to fly their airplane? What about discarding the improved safety technology that has come about as a result of automobile racing? Even with the best safety equipment, race drivers still die in crashes.

Big Brother: how can you enforce the laws without a police state?

It's silly to pass laws that can't or won't be enforced. Doing so breeds disresprect for the law in general, and burdens police with additional duties -- duties that are widely resented. A police officer who stops a driver who is not wearing a seatbelt for some other cause is certainly justified in dispensing a bit of "You really should wear your seatbelt, sir".

If you choose to enforce the law, you have to figure out how. People won't report themselves. You have to have some way of checking to see whether people are wearing their seatbelts. Do you want police officers looking inside every car they see to check for seatbelts -- even just a quick glance inside? It's a great excuse to search for contraband, for example.

Of course, it all takes time, and that means more police. More police means more tickets, and more courts, and more ... well, you get the idea.

Just Plain Efficiency

What's the benefit for a policeman writing a ticket for an unfastened seatbelt when he could be chasing a thief or a murderer? What's the opportunity cost for enforcing seatbelt laws? Or, to put it another way... if you were running a business, would you feel comfortable employing someone to check that all your other employees were wearing their seatbelts? What if you had only enough of a budget to hire one person -- would you tell themn to check seatbelts or would you tell them to investigate murders?

Put that way, it's obvious. But can't the police officers check seatbelts in the course of their normal duties... like whenever they give out a traffic ticket for speeding?

Sure. Are you comfortable extorting money from your citizens that way? For that matter, if there wasn't money to be made doing it, how many police would we have sitting in speed traps? We have enough murders and thefts and rapes and embezzlements and even terrorists, for crying out loud.

It's all about... revenue

How many lives are saved by seatbelt laws -- that is, laws that mandate seatbelts be worn, rather than mandated that cars be built with seatbelts? Unquestionably seatbelts have saved lives. But how many of those people would not have been wearing a seatbelt if they were not afraid of being caught not wearing one? Frankly, I would guess most people would wear their seatbelt whether or not there is a legal requirement to do so. So you have to count the benefits against the number of people who would otherwise not wear a seatbelt, not against the number of people whose lives were saved by a seatbelt.

If it's not really about saving lives, then what is it about? Plain and simple: revenue. A seatbelt law is one more thing that a police officer can issue a ticket for. (Speed limits have the same problem; they have become nothing more than revenue-raising measures).

The Victimless Crime argument: there's no victim, how can there be a crime?

This is an argument that covers a lot of ground. There are a lot of "victimless crimes" and they all pretty much boil down to the State telling you to do something "for your own good". When someone is harmed by the actions or negligence of another, there's a case to be made for a crime; but if no one is hurt and no one is complaining, there's not really anything wrong.

The Constitutional argument: there's no relevant enumerated power.

I think this one needs little explanation. The government has no power to compel the use of seat belts, therefore, any such federal laws are unConstitutional. The state question is more arguable, but I doubt most states have the enumerated power to regulate seat belt usage in their Constitution.

In short, this is a well-studied area of libertarian thought. Dismissing this as "fantasyland" shows an utter lack of comprehension unfortunately common to those who haven't thought things through. The fact is, liberty as a guiding principle is not compatible with a "Nanny State" concept of government. Either we are free to make our own decisions regarding personal matters, or we are slaves to the state -- compelled to subjugation "for our own good".


This entry was published 2005-09-24 10:43:35.0 by matthew@triggerfinger.org and last updated 2005-09-24 10:43:35.0. [Tweet]

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