"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