Circular logic of official ‘safety’ puzzling


Have you ever driven a car without wearing your seatbelt?

Shame on you. That makes you just one of the scofflaws, those people who think they can do whatever they want to, regardless of the rules everyone else has agreed to abide by. You deserve whatever punishment you get.

Have you ever ridden a motorcycle without wearing a helmet?

Bravo for you. That makes you a champion of individual rights, who realizes the state cannot legitimately usurp your autonomy by making illegal any action that would harm you alone. You are a paragon of moral clarity.

The law is funny sometimes.

“Paternalism” is a well-trodden path in philosophy. It means interference with the liberty or right of self-determination of another person, with the intent of promoting good or preventing harm to that person. It is based on the principle that when it’s suspected that we might not know what’s in our best interests, it is legitimate for others to take the decisions out of our hands. There is a robust debate about the topic.

John Stuart Mill, the chief opponent of paternalism, believed that a life has value only if it is freely chosen, regardless of the consequences of that choice. He would violate an individual’s autonomy only if the individual’s choice would curtail future autonomy. He would not, for example, allow us to voluntarily sell ourselves into slavery.

Gerald Dworkin, on the other hand, lists two broader justifications for paternalism. If I have diminished capacity to make a rational judgment, I should be protected against myself. And my intended actions are suspect if they are far-reaching, potentially dangerous and have irreversible consequences. I shouldn’t expect a surgeon to cut off my healthy leg just because I think it is an alien limb.

And Seana V. Shiffrin would allow us to decide for others even if it violates their autonomy. If I am the person in charge of the beach, for example, I am not obligated to implicate myself in your foolishness by allowing you to swim without a lifeguard present.

When paternalism enters the law, we can and should have a healthy debate on the moral implications that are not always obvious.

If we forbid physician-assisted suicide, for example, we are violating the autonomy of both the person seeking assistance and the physician willing to provide it. But if we allow it, we are promoting suicide as an easy choice instead of a last-ditch option, especially for impressionable teenagers prone to permanent solutions for temporary problems.

The need for that debate is growing because, like it or not, paternalistic law is becoming the norm rather than the exception. Laws against taking certain drugs have morphed into high taxes on soft drinks we are too stupid to know are bad for us. Entire federal bureaucracies exist solely for the purpose of destroying the concept of “buyer beware.” Reshaping citizens’ behavior through social policy is hardly even a matter of controversy any longer.

What we should hope for is that the debates will be rational and logical, with consistent arguments and objective evidence.

So, then: What is the rational, logical, consistent and evidence-based rationale for mandating seatbelts but not motorcycle helmets?

The answer is that there is none. Both should be mandated or neither should be, because the arguments for or against such a paternalistic edict are exactly the same in either case. We should either be protected against our bad judgment or allowed to make foolish decisions. But we are forced to cope with an absurd legal contradiction, and not just in this state. The reason, obvious to those familiar with the frailties of representative democracy, is citizen agitation.

Automobile drivers are not activists who seek to influence legislators. So, they meekly submit to state assemblies that confess to being bullied by federal blackmailers threatening highway funds for states refusing to comply with “click it or ticket” authoritarianism. With insurance companies and safety experts providing reams of statistical cover, lawmakers have managed to make lack of seatbelt use seem an unsavory violation of the laws of nature.

Motorcycle riders, by contrast, have a loud and angry army of lobbyists who raise holy (heck) whenever there’s any hint they might be subjected to involuntary protection of brain-pan integrity. Twice Congress has enacted federal legislation “encouraging” helmet use using the highway-funds-blackmail model, and both times the bikers have beaten it back. Only 20 states have been willing to incur their wrath by passing universal helmet laws. (Indiana mandates helmets only for riders under the age of 18.)

The irony here is that those acting the most on the principle of autonomy — I’ll live my life, you take care of yours — are the ones not allowed autonomy. Only those willing to give up their autonomy by banding together with like-minded individuals are able to secure their autonomy.

Legislators call this “responding to constituent concerns.” Those who watch legislatures call it “taking the path of least resistance.” That path, where the squeaky wheel gets the grease, requires neither seatbelts nor helmets, but it goes only in circles.

Leo Morris is a columnist for The Indiana Policy Review. Contact him at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].

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