Seat Belt Legislation: A Case Study in Freedom
Paul Dean Dr. Paul J. Dean's Weblog
- 2005 Feb 21
If issue-driven television is a mirror of what is going on in our culture, we are in trouble. Boston Legal is apparently that type of show. In a recent episode, a local government banned eating red meat. The first argument presented in support of the ban was that eating red meat contributes to heart disease and other health problems. A court battle ensued as an individual in the meat industry sued to overturn the legislation. The argument presented in the case was that those who eat red meat may contract mad cow disease, even though there has never been a case of anyone contracting mad cow disease in the United States.
Philosophically, my thoughts had to do with the propriety of government enacting legislation to protect people from themselves in regard to their lifestyle choices. Few people would applaud the government if it banned the eating of red meat because of the type of concerns mentioned above. However, there is a principle at work here that most people have not considered. Is it the role of government, especially from a Christian perspective, to enact legislation for the purpose of affecting behavior?
Please understand one must be consistent in his thinking. If one gets the principle right, then one will get the issues right. If one is unclear in his thinking in regard to the principle, then his support or opposition to a particular issue will be arbitrary. For example, few would want the government to force adults to wear life jackets at the local swimming pool all summer long. Many of those same individuals would, however, affirm the government forcing adults to wear motorcycle helmets when riding a motorcycle. The problem with such is inconsistency based merely on feeling or opinion rather than principle. What is the principle at stake here? Again, the question concerns the proper role of government.
A real case affecting real people is the recent Seat Belt Bill in South Carolina. It passed the State Senate last week. It now goes to the House. While I respect and appreciate Governor Mark Sanford, and am not ashamed to say that I voted for him, I do not support him on every issue. For instance, Governor Sanford says he cannot support the bill as it stands. He does not like the fact that the bill, which proposes a twelve dollar fine for not wearing a seat belt, will not make seat belt use admissible as evidence in a court of law, nor would any record of the offense be kept, nor could the violation be reported to an insurance company, nor may police put up a roadside check as they do with licenses. The Governor would apparently support the bill with the aforementioned items added to the fine.
His objections are grounded in a few points. First, he states that such a policy would simply enable the police force to raise revenue with tickets rather than really change behavior. Second, he maintains that if government is going to step in and protect people from themselves, government ought only to institute policy that maximizes the intended behavior change while allowing individuals to directly bear the cost of their choices. Third, he wants to empower persons to make decisions that are good for both them and for society. A mere twelve dollar fine will not suffice. Thus, he wants the bill to have more teeth.
These objections become problematic in light of other issues the Governor raises. He actually affirms that the revenue derived, even from good seat belt legislation, is another way for the government to tax the people. In fact, he does not understand why we would want to institute such a tax if we are not willing to enact market-based solutions that would affect people's behavior in ways other than financial sanctions.
My question is what market-based solution is he talking about? Sanford is engaging in nothing more than political doublespeak. To put more teeth in the seat belt law is no market solution. It is still an increased tax upon the people with the addition of greater penalties for violation. It may put more money in the public coffers, but it takes money out of the pockets of the people as well. The insurance companies may write exclusionary clauses or raise their rates taking more money from the people. Once again, the government solution will have backfired. Where does one find the free market solution in the Seat Belt Bill? By definition, legislation is a government solution, not a market solution.
Let me cite an example from a friend. Suppose a food shortage exists and people have to stand in line for hours to get their daily ration of food. A government official notices that a pregnant woman is suffering as she stands in line. To help alleviate her suffering, he enacts legislation that after every third person a pregnant woman may move forward and take the next spot. The question is does he actually help pregnant women? At first glance, it might seem so. Yet, what about the husbands who stand in line for hours because their wives are pregnant? Because of the special privilege given pregnant women, they now have an increased incentive to send their pregnant wives to get food while they stay home. Thus, more pregnant women end up standing in line. Moreover, under such a policy, it is plausible that some women will become pregnant just so that they can gain and exercise a privileged position in the food line. The result is that even this well-intentioned government solution is not better than a market solution. While no system is perfect, market solutions are frequently, if not always, better than government solutions.
Market solutions are Christian in principle. When special privileges are granted to one group or another, the non-benefited suffer. Furthermore, the group the government is trying to help (e.g. pregnant women) usually ends up suffering as well. A Christian worldview supports liberty and justice for all--not just for a privileged few.
Governor Sanford curiously talks about freedom. He says the seat belt issue "is particularly important to me given my personal views on any freedom we enjoy as Americans. Throughout my time in public life, I've always worked from the premise that our founding fathers viewed liberty, not safety from one's personal actions, as the greatest public value. I believe it is government's role to encourage prudent personal actions, not to criminalize poor individual choices or the self-inflicted wounds that accompany them, when simply exposing an individual to the real cost of their action would make a bigger difference than government's sanction of behavior. Bad choices, whether getting too much sun, eating too much of the wrong things or smoking, cause people to hurt themselves. As an administration, we have tried to raise awareness of their impacts. . . Ultimately, though, in a free world I believe people should be able to do things that are both stupid and inherently self-destructive provided the harm only comes to them, and they are not directly harming another person."
To say the role of government is to "encourage prudent personal actions" is an anti-liberty sentiment. To say that "people should be able to do things that are both stupid and inherently self-destructive provided the harm only comes to them" is a pro-liberty sentiment. These two statements demonstrate that the Governor is confused. Nevertheless, here, he got it right overall. Freedom means freedom from government coercion of behavior. We are not free when government imposes behavior upon us. No matter how small the issue, when government enacts legislation, our behavior is constrained and restricted. Do you think it is right to force someone to do something? Our Founding Fathers indeed viewed liberty as being of greater value than proactively forcing people to wear seat belts. They had no "big brother" complex. They were not elitists who thought that the public was too dumb to come in from the rain without their help.
Upon what biblical law may a government criminalize poor choices? None. Government should not mandate these things. Government should not even try to educate. Government education programs require more spending of public money and benefit some at the expense of others. The only justifiable government policy is reactive. We find no indication from either the Founders or the teaching of God’s Word that the state should have a role in modifying people’s behavior through proactive public policy, even when it seems obvious to some that many people make stupid decisions.
The only proper role of the government is to protect its citizens from predators. Things like murder, rape, manslaughter, stealing, and the like should be and are against the law. Of course, such law is antecedent to the formation of government (we are speaking of God's law, the foundation upon which all true law rests). Persons are protected from harm by others via the government. But, is it the government's role to keep people from making bad life choices? Maybe the government could ban motorcycles, jet skis, water skis, diving boards, swimming pools, or red meat. For example, I once had to have stitches in the side of my head when my childhood friend accidentally hit me with a golf club. So then, we would thus be led to accept, "sorry Tiger Woods, golf must be outlawed by government decree." How stupid are hang gliding and bungee jumping? Former President Bush could be in big trouble not only for sky diving, but for sky diving at his advanced age! Talk about stress upon the heart or a rise in blood pressure. I wonder if the elder Bush informed his insurance company that he was engaging in such folly.
Lest you think me unfair or radical, Thomas Jefferson said "the government that governs best is the government that governs least." Jefferson had a far more radical view of how to deal with wayward policies. It involved arms rather than writing articles and letters to politicians. While I would not support revolution in America today, no doubt Jefferson would.
The Bible affirms that the government has authority and we submit to that authority (Romans 13, etc.). Yet, the Bible does not say the government can do no wrong. A Christian should pray for and work towards having a government that promotes freedom rather than someone’s idea of what's good for us. "But let justice run down like water, And righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24)."
However, the larger problem is with Sanford's Seat Belt Bill ideology. While getting it essentially right philosophically, don't miss his doublespeak. He moves from speaking of freedom in a noble and grandiose way, to saying "government should be especially circumspect when public policy dictates a review of government policy toward individual behavior." He speaks of the legitimacy of government protecting people from themselves. Nevertheless, the only freedom Sanford promotes here is the government's freedom to impose restrictive and proactive legislation on people. At the end of his remarks, he actually says that tougher penalties for seat belt law violation will help "personal choices rather than government edict drive individuals to the outcome society desires." Again, where is personal choice in the seat belt legislation? How is seat belt legislation not government edict? He speaks with a forked tongue on this matter. Who says society desires a seat belt law? Furthermore, remember that society makes no choices and has no preferences. Only individuals do.
I wear a seat belt because I think it is safer to do so. But, I do not support the proposed Seat Belt Legislation for a number of reasons, not the least of which are principles of liberty and the right to pursue happiness. (Our forefathers held it to be a self-evident truth that God has given each one of us the unalienable right to pursue happiness). If screaming down the road at seventy miles per hour with the top down, radio blaring, and cigar in mouth is what makes me happy, is it not my right to do so? (I do not so indulge myself except going seventy miles per hour where permitted, even if I sometimes envy those who do. Of course envy is sin, but that is another blog).
Sanford closes with an appeal to "empower people to make decisions that are good for them and for society as a whole." Well, if legislation empowers people to make such a decision, how does his notion differ from being empowered by a mugger to give him my wallet because he has a gun to my head? In case you did not know Governor Sanford, holding a gun to someone's head in this manner is not a Christian method.