July 15, 2012
I had a “Nanny State” moment recently. I’d finished some heavy weed-eating on some property and prepared to drive home. My clothes were soaking wet from sweat. I was covered with dirt and plant debris. I had a seat protector.
But I didn’t have anything to protect my shoulder strap and seat belt fabric from the sweat and grime.
So I thought about the fact that I couldn’t legally make an informed decision to drive nine miles home without wearing my seat belt. I couldn’t legally decide, as a supposedly free citizen of what’s supposed to be a free country, to accept increasing a very tiny risk to a somewhat higher but still very tiny risk for the benefit of not getting sweat and grime in my seat belt fabric.
Later I did some Googling to arrive upon some rough estimates of the risks involved. I got data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and relative risk estimates of injury as well as death when wearing and not wearing seat belts. I estimated that I had a 99.999 percent chance of remaining uninjured with a seat belt on versus a 99.998 percent chance of remaining uninjured without one on. And I estimated that the corresponding chances of remaining alive were 99.999999 percent and 99.999974 percent respectively.
By any reasonable standard, I wouldn’t have been doing anything “dangerous” either way. One choice was slightly less safe than the other. But the odds that I would remain unscathed were overwhelming whether I wore a seat belt or not.
A common argument for paternalist laws such as those requiring seat belt usage is that, if we harm ourselves, we cost the society. But accepting the premise that regulating behavior to control cost puts us on a dangerous road. All of us make countless decisions every day that affect the risk picture. There is a difference, for instance, between opting to use a stationary exercise bike for exercise and opting to ride a real bicycle outside. Accepting the premise that government can protect us from ourselves in order to reduce cost is accepting the premise that government can take just about any meaningful decision away from us as well as many trivial ones that we take for granted as ours.
Underlying all of this is the fact that we’ve also accepted the premise that government should spend money to ensure the well-being of individuals. And if government is responsible for ensuring our well-being, government can assert the “cost-to-society” argument.
So we’ve exchanged liberty for security, in small ways, such as seat belt laws, as well as in large ways. And we exchange more as time goes by, bleating as we go.
environmental and public health consultant