Liberty, License, Leave Me Alone!

It's not your business if I hurt myself.

We've published two articles about the vast, hugely profitable trade in illegal drugs.  We at Scragged believe that the war on drugs is lost; by creating a high-profit illegal market, we're funding armed gangs which challenge legitimate governments in Mexico, Central America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.  These articles got more comments than any of our other articles.

We're convinced that unless we decide to reduce demand by shooting drug users, there's nothing we can do that won't harm our society and world society more than it benefits everyone.  If you doubt that, you should read the comments on "A Modest Proposal for the War on Drugs" and "More Solutions to the War On Drugs."  If you have ideas which aren't mentioned in the comments, please add your own.

The purpose of this article is to step back from the issue of illegal drugs and examine the larger idea of personal liberty.  In all societies, there is a balance between what an individual is permitted to decide for himself or herself and what society specifies that each individual must do (or not do) regardless of his or her preferences.

Everyone recognizes that there are limits on even the most fundamental rights.  No one has the right to yell, "Fire" in a crowded theater because of the potential for injuries due to panic, for example.

We've pointed out that there are many, many rights, a few of which are enshrined in our Constitution.  The question of what is and what is not a "fundamental right" can and does fill many blogs and books.  This article establishes some ground rules for a discussion of rights versus responsibilities.

The Gold Standard Definition of Liberty

The philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote what many consider to be the definitive treatise on personal liberty:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion.  That principle is, that 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 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.

His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.  He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. 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.

To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else.  The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.  In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.  Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.  [emphasis added]

- On Liberty by John Stuart Mill; Harvard Classics Volume 25, Copyright 1909 P.F. Collier & Son. Released into the public domain September 1993

Mr. Mill was an absolutist with respect to personal liberty; he used the words "govern absolutely" to describe what governments were not permitted to do.  He believed that government had absolutely no right to tell anyone not to take drugs, for example.

He was convinced that the only right of society to pass laws which restricted individual liberty was the right of self-protection.  That is, Mr. Mill would agree that we have the right to pass laws against murder, assault, or burglary, because these acts harm people besides the perpetrator, but he would oppose laws against suicide.

The suicide harms only himself.  Because no other person is directly harmed when someone commits suicide, laws against committing suicide are undue infringements on the rights of the individual.

Children's rights are another matter.  Adults believe that children are not capable of deciding for themselves, which is the justification offered for laws concerning the minimum age for consuming alcoholic beverages, entering into binding contracts, having sex, driving cars, and various other "adult" activities.  In some states, parents can get in trouble for serving alcohol to their own children in their own homes, for example.  This article discusses liberty and license for adults.

Motorcycle Helmet Laws

The stated justification for infringing on the liberty of motorcycle riders by requiring that they wear helmets is the same theory behind requiring that everyone purchase air bags in their cars - reduction of injury.  Automobile air bags save perhaps 400 lives per yearAdvocates for Auto and Highway Safety reports that:

NHTSA [National Highway Transportation Safety Administration] estimates that helmets saved the lives of 1,158 motorcyclists in 2003. If all motorcyclists had worn helmets, an additional 640 lives could have been saved. ... The average hospital charge for motorcyclists with serious head injuries was found to be almost three times that of motorcyclists with mild or no head injuries, $43,214 v. $15,528.  ... An estimated $13.2 billion was saved from 1984 through 1999 because of motorcycle helmet use.  An additional $11.1 billion could have been saved if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.

Mr. Mill did not anticipate the disappearance of individual responsibility from our society.  The article speaks of the "average hospital charge" when motorcyclists incur head injuries.

Regardless of all the rhetoric about people without health insurance, everybody knows that our society doesn't just let people die without medical treatment.  If an injured motorcyclist doesn't have health insurance, the hospital eats the cost of treatment and passes the charge on to everybody else in the form of higher prices.

Our society has decided that we're going to pick up the cost of treating injured motorcyclists just as we pick up the medical costs of illegal aliens who don't even belong here.  That's why the NHTSA talks about the $11.1 billion that could have been saved if all motorcyclists wore helmets - the bureaucracy wants more laws about transportation because laws give them something to enforce. Bureaucrats don't generally mind the loss of individual liberty.

Mr. Mill would argue that a motorcyclist only injures himself by not wearing a helmet.  He expected that an injured motorcyclist would either pay for his own medical treatment or accept responsibility for the consequences of his actions and die of his injuries if he couldn't afford treatment.

Thus, Mr. Mills would argue, the motorcyclist who doesn't wear a helmet injures only himself; it's absolutely wrong to impinge on his personal liberty by making him wear a helmet if he doesn't want to.

The government argues that wearing helmets saves society billions of dollars per year; society has the right to require helmets so that we aren't injured by the medical costs incurred by motorcyclists who have neither helmets nor medical insurance.  This message has sold well enough that according to a Harris poll, 80% of Americans favor state laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets.

Why, then, are more and more states repealing helmet laws?  Because motorcycle riders don't like wearing helmets and campaign vigorously against helmet laws, partly by arguing in favor of personal liberty.

Automobile Helmet Laws

There's an interesting fact everybody ignores - forcing automobile drivers to wear helmets would save more lives than are lost due to motorcycle riding.  The article cited above says:

Per vehicle miles traveled, motorcyclists are about 21 times as likely as passenger car occupants to die in a traffic crash and four times as likely to be injured. ... Motorcycles make up less than 2% of all registered vehicles and only 0.4% of all vehicle miles traveled, but motorcyclists account for over 9% of total traffic fatalities.

Motorcycles are far more dangerous per mile traveled, but they're driven so few miles that motorcyclists account for only 9% of all traffic fatalities.  Automobiles kill more than 10 times as many people as motorcycles.

I have a friend who collects statistics.  He states that even with air bags, seat belts, etc., people still die in automobile accidents, and many of the deaths are due to head injuries.  As with motorcycle fatalities, most automotive fatalities caused by head injuries would not have occurred if the driver and passengers had been wearing motorcycle helmets.

He believes that there's more than a little hypocrisy in people who don't drive motorcycles forcing motorcyclists to wear helmets on the grounds of cutting medical costs while refusing to wear helmets while driving cars which inflict more cost treating automobile head injuries than motorcycle head injuries cost.

Some questions come to mind:

  1. Is it reasonable to assume that a motorcyclist who chooses not to wear a helmet is guilty of "contributory negligence"?  If so, should a negligent motorcyclist with no health insurance or the cash to pay for it be denied medical care?
  2. Should we assume that a motorist who chooses not to wear a seat belt is guilty of "contributory negligence"?  If so, should a negligent motorist with no health insurance be denied medical care?  Or does "contributory negligence" even exist anymore?
  3. We know that riding a motorcycle without a helmet increases medical costs on the average; most people feel that it's OK to pass laws forbidding people from riding bare-headed.  We also know that certain practices increase the risk of catching AIDS which also increases everybody's medical costs.  Why is it OK to restrict the personal liberty of the motorcycle riding community to keep them from hurting themselves at our expense and it's not OK to restrict other people's personal liberty to keep them from hurting themselves at our expense?
  4. If people choose to do things which are known to increase their risk of needing medical care, should they be held responsible for the consequences?  Or should society pick up the tab for, say, smokers with cancer, fat people with heart conditions, or people with AIDS regardless of behavior?

This gets back to the question of how we as a society regard personal liberty.  Most people don't ride motorcycles and favor helmet laws partly because they don't want to pay medical costs.  Would people not mind helmetless motorcyclists so much if they knew it wouldn't cost them anything?

What about other exercises of personal liberty?  Our society has decided that if a woman exercises her personal liberty to get pregnant without a husband, society will buy her an apartment, clothes, food, and other necessities.  Society has decided that if someone exercises personal liberty and gets AIDS, society will pay the medical costs.  People who get themselves into medical trouble by taking illegal drugs expect free medical treatment without limit.

The Most Basic Liberty of All

In Olmstead v. United States 277 U.S. 479, Justice Brandeis said, "[The] right to be let alone - the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men."

Our Founders put it somewhat more succinctly - "Don't tread on me."  They even had a snappy logo to go along with it, known as the Gadsden flag.  This sentiment displays the liberty to be left alone as the underlying principle of both the Constitution's Bill of Rights and Mr. Mill's essay.

Broadly speaking, America was founded by a group of men and women who'd left Europe because of government interference in what they considered to be their God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

There have always been two dueling threads to American history - the "leave us alone" faction who wants to own guns, start businesses, and generally have the government stay out of their way, and the "Government is All" group.  "Leave us alone" people want low taxes because they believe they can spend their money more wisely than government can, the "Government is All" people want higher taxes to essential programs which they claim will benefit the people more than they cost.

Although the founders were pretty much all "leave us alone" thinkers, the fact that the US government ended up owning more land than in the entire rest of the country after the Louisiana purchase meant that the government chose to be deeply involved in land use, setting up railroads, giving away farms, and other activities which gave a great boost to the "Government is All" crowd.  It would have taken a heroic effort by the "leave us alone" faction to have the government turn all that land over to random exploration, but because at one time, government did own all the land, government still has undue influence in most of the Western states and in Alaska.

We don't believe that the government is capable of doing anything much to advance the public good; its ability to do harm should be evident to all.  It can collect a lot of money in taxes and use our tax money to support vast armies of bureaucrats whose programs often do more harm than good, as witness the war on drugs.

"Leave us alone" people simply don't believe that government can do any good, so it ought to stay out of the way.  "Government is All" disciples believe that people aren't capable of running their own lives and that taxes must be raised to fund programs to help them.

Unfortunately for the long-term cause of persona liberty, there's money to be made in the "Government is All" business.  People who oppose taxes and want the government to leave them alone have to get their money the old-fashioned way - they have to earn it.  Government is All people, on the other hand, can find jobs in the agencies which are set up to handle the problems they identified.

Government agencies don't have to deliver any value at all to keep being funded so their employees don't have to be as concerned about doing work which other people are willing to pay for.  Not having to worry about being funded leads to a comfortable existence which many people prefer to an existence which depends on finding new customers every day.  Thus, over time, Government is All people win out, taxes go up and up, and government eventually acomplishes nothing at all.

Unfortunately for the immediate cause of personal liberty, all of the current Presidential contenders are "big government" people.

Mr. Obama speaks of the urgent need to raise the capital gains tax rate, ignoring the fact that the economy has boomed and government tax revenue has gone up each time the rate is lowered.  We've already discussed Hillary's intrusive plans for health care.  The down-side of Mr. McCain's patriotism is that he believes that our government can do good and, what's even worse, that it ought to.

Mr. Mill was clearly in the "leave us alone" camp, but he recognized that there is no such thing as liberty without responsibility.  As our society gets more and more irresponsible, our federal, state, and local governments will justify more and more laws which restrict our liberty on the grounds that our freedoms cost too much money.  Eventually, we'll have no liberties at all.

Demosthenes is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Demosthenes or other articles on Society.
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