There is nothing so dangerous in government as a lawmaker who feels compelled to “do something.”
People in government often feel they need to justify their own existence by finding a problem and then legislating a solution for it. Like parents disciplining their children, enterprising legislators have a penchant for codifying behavioral rules.
Motorcyclists die when they crash without a helmet? Mandate helmets! Motorists die because they don’t wear their seat belt? Mandate wearing seat belts! Too many fat people in the world? Ban trans fats!
The list of paternalistic, statist ideas is endless, because there is no end to preventable problems that lawmakers can find and propose a law to “solve.”
The latest — and in my mind most ridiculous — proposed law of this kind here in Maine is one which would require paddlers to wear life jackets while out on the water.
Naturally, this comes in response to a problem. A few kayakers have died this summer while not wearing life jackets. Ignorance of the danger, particularly by tourists, is a major factor in the push to legally force people to put on a life jacket. A law would magically fix this, of course.
Legal solutions like these are problematic for several reasons.
To start, their effectiveness is often either nonexistent or highly suspect. Take speed limits, for instance. In the 1970s, cars in the United States were slowed down to an achingly slow 55 miles per hour when the national speed limit was instituted. It was widely believed that slowing down cars on the highway would lead to fewer fatalities in crashes.
Not only do hundreds of thousands of motorists (myself included) flaunt the posted speed limits every day, but the lower speed limit didn’t really have much of an effect on traffic fatalities. Indeed, the state of Montana would later go on to remove speed limits entirely from nonurban areas, and they found that fatalities simply did not rise at all. With no speed limit. Go as fast as you like.
Why is this? People generally aren’t stupid and they don’t want to die. The people who are stupid enough to recklessly speed do it with or without speed limits. Very little changes (other than my bill for speeding tickets).
Other laws, such as outlawing the use of cellphones while driving, are simply not obeyed by anyone.
These laws always fail to deal with context. Not wearing a seat belt for a quarter-mile trip on an abandoned road is hardly more dangerous to you than doing so in the middle of rush hour traffic on the highway, for example. Not wearing a life jacket on a still pond is inherently less dangerous than kayaking rapids without one.
But most troubling is that laws such as these stomp on the freedom of choice by individuals to run their own lives how they see fit, risk and all.
There is a great scene from the movie “Demolition Man” (an otherwise horrible movie), in which Denis Leary’s character launches into a tirade which has become something of an anthem for those of us who hate nanny-state laws:
“I’m the kind of guy who likes to sit in a greasy spoon and wonder, ‘Gee, should I have the T-bone steak or the jumbo rack of barbecued ribs with the side order of gravy fries?’ I WANT high cholesterol. I want to eat bacon and butter and BUCKETS of cheese, OK? I want to smoke a Cuban cigar the size of Cincinnati in the nonsmoking section. I want to run through the streets naked with green Jello all over my body reading Playboy magazine. Why? Because I suddenly might feel the need to, OK, pal?”
His point, comically, is that there are harmful things all around us, but legally removing our ability to choose to engage in riskier behavior in the name of “what’s best” for us is, and should be, offensive.
It is one thing to say “you really shouldn’t do that,” but it is an entirely different thing to say “you can’t do that, or we will fine you or put you in prison.”
Are all public safety laws wrong? No, of course not. But when we start legislating people wearing orange flotation devices, I think we’ve gone well beyond a reasonable line.