Buckle-Up!

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"When
the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government
fears the people, there is liberty."

~
Thomas Jefferson

The other day
I was driving my car, just listening to the radio, my mind in neutral,
when this threatening message shattered the blissful tranquility
of my afternoon commute. A distinctly ominous voice warned — boasted,
almost – that police were on the lookout, day and night,
for a certain category of lawbreakers, and that no warnings would
be given to violators. Must be a pretty serious offense to justify
this sort of warning, right? Well, not really. The crime? Neglecting
to wear a seat belt. Yes, that's right. Not buckling up.

That same distinctly
ominous voice then sternly intoned, "Buckle up or you WILL
get caught." For the briefest of moments I thought
I was living in a police state. To my unbridled relief, I quickly
recaptured my wits and realized that I was actually living in the
land of the free. I know that things are different here. Our government
doesn't threaten its citizens like that. Does it?

Adding insult
to insult, the same distinctly ominous voice claimed that this PSA
was paid for by the U.S. Department of Transportation. "Paid
for," I thundered back? Question: What product
or service did the U.S. Department of Transportation sell to earn
the money to pay for this PSA? We all know the answer. None.
No government agency, including this one, ever pays for a
freaking thing. Not one thin dime. You and I do.

This agency
merely takes its cut out of what the general government seizes from
us at gunpoint. It then proceeds to use our own money to threaten
us with PSAs like this one. It is with breathtaking cheek that this
parasitic government agency claims to actually pay for such "services."
What "service" is the government offering us? Punishment.
And it's an offer you can't refuse.

It's funny,
every other advertisement on television or radio seeks to please
us by offering a product or service promising to satisfy a particular
want or need. Granted, some of these ads may be insufferably irritating,
but they universally promise us some form of fulfillment. The companies
that run them cannot force us to purchase their products or services.
They can only survive by providing products or services that people
want at a price they can afford. They cannot run ads that bark at
us, "Buy this product or you WILL get caught."
Have you ever heard an advertisement that actually
threatened you? But that is precisely what the government
does with this deeply insulting "Click it or ticket" PSA
campaign.

That these
laws actually exist is injurious enough to the cause of liberty.
The effrontery is compounded severalfold by the fact that our government
has no compunction whatsoever about openly threatening us for an
act that clearly does not belong in the realm of punishable offenses.

On a related
note, I was crossing the Henry Hudson Bridge into upper Manhattan
the other day when I saw a sign flashing a warning that, "Fireworks
are Dangerous and Illegal. Transport Fireworks, Lose Your Vehicle."
There it was again. Another blatant government threat. This time
they're actually threatening to seize your property for transporting
items that I, and probably you as well, used routinely as kids with
great delight.

Yes, I realize
that some fireworks are dangerous, but seizing your vehicle?! And
must they blatantly threaten us like that? A government that issues
such threats to its citizens is not a government that thinks very
much of us. It is not one that believes us competent in a meaningful
sense. Yet government officials like to refer to themselves as public
"servants." Anyway, back to the seat belt issue.

Some may justify
the law by claiming, "It's no big deal, seat belt laws save
lives and it's just a small fine." The punishment may be a
slap on the wrist, sure, but that slap on the wrist will soon become
a smart rap on the knuckles if you don't play nice. And that smart
rap on the knuckles will become a good deal more if you really resist.
You will end up in the hoosegow — or worse.

Recall that
every government law or regulation is ultimately backed by lethal
force. Every single one. This fact is not mentioned in polite company
but it is true nonetheless. Without guns to enforce them, laws would
be mere suggestions. Bear that in mind the next time you hear about
some piece of proposed legislation.

Now, please
understand that I am in no way opposed to seat belt use. To the
contrary. You're a fool not to wear one. Please wear your seat belt.
And I'm not opposed to requiring that children, who lack the ability
to make rational decisions themselves, be strapped in. However,
let us return briefly to first principles.

Laws were
instituted among men to defend members of society against the predations
of other members of society. The only legitimate law is one that
serves that purpose. Any law that strays beyond that function in
order to regulate the private behavior of competent adult individuals
is a perversion of justice.

Laws requiring
one to operate a safe vehicle, with functioning brakes, for example,
are just, as one may pose an undue risk to one's fellow citizens
should those brakes fail. A law requiring one to wear a seat belt
turns this traditional concept of law on its head because the "offending"
party potentially harms no one but him or herself. Whose person
or property is endangered by our not wearing a seat belt? No one's
but our own. It is therefore no concern of government.

As John Stuart
Mill so wisely averred: The only purpose for which power can
be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community
against his will is to prevent harm to others…. These are good reasons
for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading
him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting
him with any evil in case he do otherwise. Mill also writes:
The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively,
in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number,
is self-protection.

That is my
entire argument in a nutshell. In other words, if you're not harming
anyone you should be left the @#%& alone. Period. It's really
that simple. This basic precept of classical liberalism undergirds
the basic moral and legal structure of a genuinely free society.
It clearly delineates the sphere of individual liberty while setting
definite limits about the power of the collective. When it crosses
that line, government becomes not a defender of rights, but an aggressive
violator of them. Need it be suggested that our government does
not consider itself bound by such fetters?

The libertarian-minded
economist, Walter Williams, asks this question when considering
the legitimacy of government action: "Does the government own
us?" It's a question that should really be considered far
more closely. Does the government own us? If it does, then I suppose
it can order us to wear seat belts or motorcycle helmets or prohibit
us from using fireworks or ingesting trans-fats or various chemicals
that it does not sanction. Or it can force us to brush our teeth
twice a day – or dance the tango for that matter. Why not? If government
does not own us on the other hand, needless to say, we may
reach a somewhat different conclusion. I certainly do.

Some may also
argue that seat belt use is a public safety concern and should be
mandatory because it costs us all money when people suffer needless
injuries that could be prevented. They have a point. Traffic injuries
probably cost billions a year. But this should not be a paramount
concern of government. It is a concern of government, however,
because we live in a society in which medical costs are increasingly
borne by government – by you and me, really. Government munificence
often comes affixed to a string and since government is paying an
increasing portion of our medical bills, it believes it has the
right to enact measures designed to reduce its costs. I suspect
the list of banned activities and substances will continue to grow.

As Williams
explains, when he would argue with his mother over something as
a child, she would shoot back, "As long as you're living under
my roof and I'm paying for you, you're going to follow my rules."
That is essentially government's attitude towards us. As long as
it's paying the bills, we're going to follow its rules. That is
partly why we have seat belt laws and a slew of other restrictions
on our individual liberty. Lobbying by insurance companies is of
course largely responsible, as well. That's what brought us these
laws in the first place. Guess who gets the short end of the stick
when business and government are in cahoots?

Perhaps this
is much ado about nothing and I've got my dander up about nothing.
I'd have to agree, seat belt laws do not in themselves herald the
end of the Republic. However, they speak directly to the relationship
between citizen and government. If the unwavering defense of human
liberty is not the pole star guiding all government action, if government
seeks to extend its influence beyond that limited and defined purpose,
then it betrays the very purpose for which it was created. Seat
belt laws clearly would not exist in a society that values liberty
above all.

As government
seeks to do more for us, it must also do more to us. We're obviously
well along that path. Consequently, our traditional notion of negative
liberty is under relentless assault by our mass democracy. Whereas
the concept of rights was once understood as a shield against
government, it is now becoming a sword wielded by government.
Seat belt laws are but one manifestation of this trend.

This transmogrification
of our system of rights may ultimately lead to what Tocqueville
warned America could become if certain impulses inherent in a democratic
polity went unchecked — a "soft, benevolent, enervating despotism."
Our government may not bind us in iron chains but instead place
us in gilded cages more befitting beloved pets. It may not be a
very dignified existence, but it would be a safe one. It would be
for own good. Who could oppose that? Oh, and don't forget to buckle
up.

June
6, 2007

Brian
Maher [send him mail] is
a freelance writer living just outside of New York City.

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