I read with dismay a recent letter in your paper from a reader who was outraged that he had gotten sweat and grime on his seat belt after a hard day of working in his yard. He wanted to blame this on the government. Why is one, after all, required to wear such a device when one is dirty and slimy? One is forced to wonder if the writer doesn’t have similar existential crises during his cleaner moments.
I was going to ignore the rant, and chalk it up as another libertarian who believes that if the government would just leave us alone then we all would be better off. It was then that I noticed the writer claimed to be a public-health consultant.
I was aghast. Surely a person in such a profession would know the importance of policies regarding public safety. As a physician, I see the consequences of personal choice constantly. Smoking would be the most-disastrous example. When public health and safety are at risk, however, it is the government’s duty to act.
It takes no genius to recognize that a person’s risk of injury is low — whether or not a seat belt is worn — if there is no accident. The risk is much higher of course, if an accident does occur. These higher risks are not limited to just the scofflaw driver, but to first-responders, other motorists, and health-care providers.
In an additional act of irony, our intrepid public-health consultant minimizes and mocks the additional costs to society associated with unwise choices of personal behavior, calling attempts to influence these choices paternalistic. As if the government has no role in mitigating these costs. This begs the question: for what other role are governments formed? One can’t help but imagine our writer was the one adding cows to the overused pasture during the section on the Tragedy of the Commons in Sociology 101.
Finally, it is abundantly clear the government recognizes, and gives due deference to, individual liberty when constructing laws regarding public health and safety. It gives me no great pleasure to point out, using the example above, that despite extensive harmful health consequences, a person may still choose to smoke. It is government’s role to protect the public (read: nonsmokers) from that person’s choice. In a similar vein, and conspicuously absent from our angry writer’s diatribe, is that as a driver, he still may choose to wear or not to wear his seat belt. His liberties and possessions are not taken from him. He is simply asked to pay a small fine, which is used, as it were, to increase public safety. How congruous. The public, and your clean seat belt, thank you.