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Mandatory Seat Belts (Reprise)

Mandatory seatbelt (and helmet) laws do not generally arouse my passion, for two reasons. First, although I consider them paternalistic invasions of my autonomy, they also have no immediate or practical effect on me: I use seatbelts and helmets by choice, as do most people I know. Second, given the very real benefits they provide and the relatively low costs they entail — and given that, on such bases, only one state in the Union currently does not mandate the use of seatbelts — I consider them largely a fait accompli. That doesn’t make me agree with such laws or embrace them; it merely makes worrying about them a poor use of my time and energy.

That said, I happen now to live in that one state (New Hampshire), and when the issue arises — as it does from time to time — proponents of such laws tend to be particularly dismissive of any concerns about civil liberties, to characterize those who raise such concerns as egocentric simpletons, and to trivialize their opposition as merely a childish and irrational reaction to “being told what to do.”  That dismissive and disrespectful tone does stir my passion. This letter, like its predecessor, was written in response to such an editorial (about a year after the first) in the local newspaper, Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, NH. And, like its predecessor, it was submitted to Foster’s the day the editorial ran. It was being considered for publication when the news editors decided, instead, to publish a multi-part series on public reaction to the seatbelt proposal, and it was never used.

As a matter of interest, I have included, at the end of this entry, two additional edits, requested by the editor at Foster’s when he was considering it for publication to fit the piece to their space constraints. The edits are shorter, and therefore less detailed but more succinct. I have provided them as an example of the tradeoffs required to get articles published. For reference, the “letter” version is about the maximum length for many publications (like Foster’s and The Boston Globe) but about twice the maximum for The New York Times.

15 January 2005

(full length version)

Once again the proposal has arisen to mandate seat belt use in New Hampshire, and once again the Foster’s editorial staff has taken the side of the “virtuous” (“Individual rights are not violated by a seat belt law”, 5 Jan 2005), throwing out the phrase “Live Free and Die” to belittle defenders of liberty and arguing that the end justifies the means.

Notwithstanding the bold assertion with which they titled their editorial, their argument never actually addresses whether seat belt laws violate individual rights. Rather, they seem to concede the point and respond with a resounding “So What? It is justified!”  The thrust of their justification is:

  • That the human cost — 41 extra deaths last year and the emotional trauma for friends and families that accompany them — dwarfs whatever (miniscule) price we would pay in liberty.
  • That the economic costs — for medical treatment — are borne by society either through insurance costs (if paid by insurance companies) or through the social safety net (if we enforce personal responsibility by letting insurance companies deny coverage for injuries sustained while not wearing a seat belt); and that our financial participation gives society the right to enforce constraints on individual behavior that affect those economic costs.

Leaving aside the practical question of whether those “extra” deaths really do impose financial costs (because injuries are more severe) or not (because we don’t spend as much money healing the dead as we do healing the injured), both arguments lack any substantive moral foundation.

As the Foster’s staff graciously allowed me to point out in their pages the last time this issue arose a little more than a year ago (“Mandatory seat belt use crosses the line of our right to choose”, 24 Nov 2003), there are many personal behaviors — say smoking or drinking, or racing cars, or bicycling on the roads, or scuba diving, or playing a contact sport — that increase our risk of disease, or of injury, or even of death. When counted as statistics across the whole population these all result in some amount of “extra” misery and death each year, and at various times most of these have been the subject of more or less serious efforts by some compassionate souls to protect us from ourselves by prohibiting them. But most of us value our freedom to choose such activities despite (or even because of) their risks, not just because they also offer benefits and pleasures that their detractors simply can’t appreciate but, more fundamentally, because the freedom to choose our own fates is the only true freedom. Just as the freedom to say only what everyone else agrees is true is not “freedom of speech”, the freedom to do only what everyone else agrees is good for you is not “freedom of action”. If we grant society generally, and the government specifically, the authority to circumscribe our actions solely because they are potentially self-destructive we have sold our freedom for a false security.

The other argument — that our financial exposure gives us the right to dictate behavior that minimizes the exposure — is appealing, and might be legitimate if we had made a covenant with the recipients of our largesse rather than simply imposing our compassion as a policy — if we had said up front, for instance, that we would not pay their medical bills if their behavior contributed to their injuries, allowed them to make decisions based on that, and then enforced that policy even when compassion told us to do otherwise; or alternatively, if the recipients had specifically asked for our help and we had imposed our restrictions as a condition of providing it. But we did not do either. As a matter of policy we have promised as a society to cover the medical needs of the severely injured no matter how those injuries are sustained, either indirectly through the risk pool of insurance or directly through public and private subsidies for emergency medical care. In such circumstances we in fact take great pains to circumvent the normal mechanisms by which the costs of individual choices would be borne by the individual.

Such a policy is certainly compassionate and arguably pragmatic, and some would contend that doing anything else would be immoral. But, however well-justified that policy may be, it is also voluntary: as a society we have assumed that burden by our own choice and for our own moral and practical purposes; and, having volunteered for our own reasons to take on that responsibility (and for all practical purposes denied all opportunities to refuse our generosity), we have no moral claim on those we choose to help.

Imagine that your parents or in-laws, because they are both wealthy and care about the welfare of their children and their grandchildren, volunteer to cover all your family medical bills. You certainly appreciate their help, but you didn’t ask for it and didn’t negotiate any conditions for its provision; they just arranged to pay for your insurance premiums and doctor’s visits — and family dynamics didn’t give you the realistic option of refusing. Do they now have carte blanche to tell you how to run your life? Can they demand that you exercise for some number of hours per week? Can they dictate the menus for your meals? The hobbies you pursue? The vices you indulge or renounce? Does accepting help from someone who is adamant about giving it obligate you to indulge their notions of what is good for you? Does the fact that your choices determine the extent of their self-imposed obligation give them a moral authority over your behavior?

Most of us would insist not. Yet that is the justification offered for imposing mandatory seat belt use on the drivers and passengers of New Hampshire.

If we grant the validity of Foster’s justifications for a policy of mandating behavior that is good for us or prohibiting behavior that is bad for us, what other similar policies might we see in the future? Will we prohibit smoking? Eating high-fat foods? Both are currently the subject of activism from particularly zealous advocates of public health. Will we again prohibit the drinking of alcoholic beverages? That certainly takes a personal and social toll. What about the bearing of children out of wedlock? That has been shown to be statistically and sensibly correlated with poverty, poor health, and low life opportunity for both mothers and children, and it costs society a bundle. Should we mandate the use of condoms during sexual intercourse? That would decrease the risk of contracting AIDS. Perhaps we should outlaw SUVs because we all pay for the incremental pollution and depletion of energy reserves that they cause. Perhaps we should ban guns — that argument has been made for decades.

If these seem impossible, they shouldn’t. The principle that government can and should prohibit behavior solely because it might, under some circumstance, create personal harm and social cost can be easily applied to any one of those scenarios, and to hundreds more besides. If we grant the principle then the only thing that prevents extending it in those and other ways is fickle political will.

The fact is that we should all wear seat belts. We really should, and the excuses people make for not doing so are pretty pathetic and the costs of doing so are vanishingly small. We also all should refrain from smoking (either tobacco or marijuana), and should never drink alcohol (but should drink red wine to protect our hearts), and should eat vegetables seven times a week, and should avoid fatty foods, and should exercise regularly, and should watch our weights. According to some people we should all attend church regularly for the good of our souls; others claim that requires rather a life of ascetism and servitude. I’m sure I’d be better off if I got enough sleep instead of using those nocturnal hours to broaden my horizons by reading — or perhaps not if you consider my intellectual and spiritual well-being of importance equal to my material well-being. My father always insisted that bicycles and cars could not coexist safely, and that people therefore should refrain from riding bicycles on the public thoroughfares. Or perhaps they should refrain from driving cars instead, because bicycles give us more exercise and less pollution. If we disagree over which it is, does the fact that 51% (or 80%) of the people agree with you make you right?

There are things we all could do to improve one or another aspect of our lives. Sometimes those things are inexpensive; sometimes they are not, and have deleterious consequences for other aspects of our lives; sometimes those consequences are things that only we, individually, can fully and truly appreciate, things that would seem petty or inconsequential to others. And sometimes such improvement would benefit society by making us healthier or by making us better citizens (or more pliant subjects) or by making us friendlier to our neighbors or by making us more attentive to the needs of humanity.

But is that enough to mandate them? By what tenet of our founding political philosophy, and under what article of our Constitution, is the government granted authority to enforce such things? And should we really trust it with that authority?

I’m not sure I do. Do you?

© Copyright 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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