Sunday, May 01, 2005

Freedom to be Foolish 

Max Hastings has an article in the Guardian sure to be loved by fools everywhere ("A victory for the freedom to be foolish"):

A significant court victory was announced this week for people who like to live dangerously - well, a bit dangerously. Swimmers who bathe in the ponds of Hampstead Heath had been told by the Corporation of London that they could not indulge their enthusiasm in winter.

This was a dangerous practice said the lords of the ponds, which could expose the corporation to prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), an organisation that inspires the same dread as once did the Spanish Inquisition.
The Spanish Inquisition! I didn't expect that! And while as a non-Brit I haven't got a clue what all this HSE stuff is, if it refers to some sort of British umbrella group encompassing the fine people who sue over too-hot-coffee, then Mr. Hastings has my permission to continue this line of thinking.

Sure enough, he battles on, cataloging another glorious victory in the Struggle for Fools' Rights:

The bikers' group has achieved the weakening or elimination of compulsory helmet law in 29 states. Since 1997, five have repealed helmet law: Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas.
And he is unafraid to bring to light what exactly happened as a result of allowing fools to behave foolishly:

Consequences have been predictable. Road deaths among bikers since the repeal of helmet legislation have risen by 4.7% in Arkansas, 21.1% in Florida, 55.2% in Kentucky and 29.5% in Texas. An 83.5% increase in Louisiana caused the state to reintroduce mandatory helmet wear last year.

Allowing bikers to ride without helmets causes more of them to kill themselves.
So far so good. We could close with a tip of the hat to Charles Darwin and leave it at that. But instead, at this point he deviates from the tightly crafted libertarian script I've given him:

Even most libertarians will acknowledge that it is foolish to let people travel at speed without protection. The case for compulsion seems overwhelming. The successes of Sputnik [ed: Sputnik is man responsible for fighting the helmet law] merely reflect the battiness that can be let loose by states' rights and quirks of local democracy.
Ok, never fear, we've had his libertarian membership card pulled, and his library membership card too, just to be sure.

So what was in the script that he ignored? Well he gives hints of it later, as he concludes:

We are all entitled to choose to take some personal decisions about our own health and safety - and, if we are responsible adults, to accept the consequences. When public bodies cite HSE legislation as reason to prevent people from exposing themselves to common colds then the bureaucracies concerned are running amok. We must restrain them, or forfeit a significant fragment of personal liberty.
Sounds good to me.

The key word is consequences.

In Judaism, do we outlaw owning an animal because it might hurt someone? No, but we carefully set out what the consequences are. Do we outlaw digging a hole because someone might fall in? No, but we again set out the consequences, and the context for judging culpability. In America, is it illegal to Super-Size your McMeal (surely as dangerous as riding without a helmet)? Well, not yet. But when we accept the principal of forbidding bad judgement, almost every action is subject to legislation, depending more on what lobbying groups or PR efforts get behind a particular risk factor than anything else. So eat your Super-Happy-Meals now, while you can, folks!

You must be wondering if I'm really that heartlessly pure a libertarian, that I wish death on helmetless fools, and clogged arteries on habitual McDiners. In reality, I'm not sure because I don't feel an obligation to represent any pure libertarian ideology. Being an advocate of a single clearly delineated position is just too restrictive for me, in my quest to bitingly criticize some minor point of any article ever written.

So I think I might be able to wedge this "consequences" business between myself and the need for idealogical purity. If a rider without a helmet can paralyze himself and society picks up the tab, there is no responsible adult bearing the consequences of his choices. If society cannot construct mechanisms by which the consequences of a particular choice can be predictably brought to bear on the chooser, then that choice is a candidate for compulsion.

My other exception is the "responsible adult" rule. The clear case here is that things are different for kids. Responsible adults can knowlegeably assume their own risk. Children cannot. Consider the difference between helmet laws and child booster seat laws. While it's at least theoretically possible society could allow adults to choose to ride without helmets, that is not the case with child booster seats (and seat belts, etc).

This still leaves open a whole other barrel of fun we could have talking about regarding which risks adults are obligated to protect their children from. I personally swaddle mine in bubble wrap--with oxygen and homework pumped in. But we'll crack that barrel another day after I run out of ideas for top ten lists or other articles to criticise.
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