Walter E. Williams, Ph.D., is the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He holds a Doctor of Humane Letters from Virginia Union University and Grove City College, Doctor of Laws from Washington and Jefferson College and Doctor Honoris Causa en Ciencias Sociales from Universidad Francisco Marroquin, in Guatemala, where he is also Professor Honorario.More ↓Less ↑
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an office within the U.S. Department of Transportation, just finished its annual campaign to get us to wear our seatbelts under a program called “Click It or Ticket.” States receive federal subsidies to ticket drivers if they or their passengers are not buckled up.
Some states, such as Maryland, are so eager that they’ve equipped their officers with night-vision goggles, similar to those used by our servicemen in Iraq. Maryland state troopers bagged 44 drivers traveling unbuckled under the cover of darkness. The NHTSA’s “Click It or Ticket” program is another step toward making Americans serfs of the state.
Let’s look at it. I personally believe that wearing seatbelts is a good idea, and I buckle up and remind my passengers to do so as well. Because seatbelt usage saves lives, mandating such is an abomination in a free society. There are many other legislative actions that are offensive to liberty and can have saving as their justification, a matter I’ll turn to later. But let’s talk about the immorality of mandated seatbelt usage.
Let’s start with the question: Who owns Walter E. Williams? Is it President Bush, the U.S. Congress, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, or do I own myself? I’m guessing that any reasonable person would agree that I own Walter E. Williams. The fact that I own myself means that I have the right to take risks with my own life but not others’. That’s why it’s consistent with morality to mandate that my car have working brakes. If my car doesn’t have working brakes, then I risk the lives of others, and I have no right to do so. If I choose not to wear a seatbelt, then I risk my own life, which I have every right to do.
Of course, if it’s stipulated that President Bush, the Congress or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania owns me, I have no such right – I’d be risking their property. Some might rejoin by saying, “Williams, if you’re not wearing a seatbelt, and don’t do us the favor of dying in an accident and become an incapacitated vegetable, society will have to bear the expense of taking care of you.” That’s not a problem of liberty and self-ownership. It’s a problem of socialism.
There’s no moral case for forcing anyone to care for me for any reason. When we buy into socialism, we buy into paternalistic government. It reminds me of what my mother used to say during my rebellious adolescent years: “Boy, as long as you’re living in my house and I’m paying the bills, you’re going to do what I say!” Paternalism is OK for children, but is it suitable for adults? For those who agree with “Click It or Ticket” because it saves lives, would they agree with other possible lifesaving mandates?
Each year, obesity claims the lives of 300,000 Americans and adds over $100 billion to health-care costs. Should government enforce a 2,000-calorie intake limit per day? There’s absolutely no dietary reason to add salt to our meals. Salt can lead to hypertension-induced heart attacks that kill thousands. Should government outlaw salt consumption? Sedentary lifestyles have been shown to lead to shorter and less healthy lives. Should there be government-mandated exercise programs?
The justifications used for “Click It or Ticket” can easily provide the template for government control of our diets and other lifestyle features. Maybe I’m a bit out of touch with today’s Americans. With the silence in the face of attacks on Burger King and McDonald’s, alleging they cause obesity, maybe Americans are pining for more government control over their lives – and “Click It or Ticket” is just softening up the rest of us for what lies ahead in the future.