Mero Moment: Safety, Liberty And Helmet Laws

In my very first public remarks as president of Sutherland Institute back in 2001, I framed my talk around three fundamental questions about government, laws and freedom. I asked, if you could do something, why wouldn’t you? And then, if you would do something, why couldn’t you? And lastly, if you don’t have to, why do you? Those are the three basic questions utopians use to challenge the original vision of freedom pursued by America’s Founding Fathers.

A perennial story that showed up again in the news today reminded me of the first question: If you could do something, why wouldn’t you? For instance, pretend for a moment that you’re a state legislator. If you could use state government to redistribute wealth and wipe out poverty, why wouldn’t you? What stops an elected official from waving his magic wand to make our lives bliss?

In the news today is another national study that finds Utah ranked 21st in the nation for fatal injuries and urges the state to adopt stronger laws on seatbelts and helmets. The report says matter-of-factly that millions of injuries could be prevented each year if states would simply adopt these tougher seatbelt and helmet laws. The report states that California and New York received the highest ranking because each of those states has adopted at least nine out of 10 laws recommended in the study.

The executive director of the Trust for America’s Health says, “This report focuses on specific, scientifically supported steps we can take to make it easier for Americans to keep themselves and their families safer.”

So if a law can save a life, why wouldn’t we pass that law? While there is some dispute over the fact, it seems generally that wearing a seatbelt saves lives. Why shouldn’t Utah legislators pass a law that says anyone in a car must be wearing a seatbelt? Along these same lines, we’re told that children wearing helmets while they ride bikes protects them from head injuries. So why not require all children riding bikes to wear helmets?

These policy dilemmas are what often divide conservatives and liberals and conservatives and libertarians. Liberals rarely fail to answer the big question in the affirmative. With very few exceptions, such as abortion, liberals answer if you can save lives, pass any law that would do it. Equally rigid are libertarians generally who would respond that such decisions are private and if someone wants to put themselves in harm’s way, so be it. The liberal response is utopian to the degree that it places safety ahead of liberty. The libertarian response is utopian to the degree that it places liberty ahead of safety.

The conservative response, as usual, seeks to protect lasting freedom by balancing individual liberty and its boundaries inherent as we live in community. The fact is that laws are designed to not only settle disputes and restrain bad behavior to the degree that bad behavior impacts freedom; laws help to shape and mold civic attitudes about freedom in a free society. So why shouldn’t Utah pass a law requiring all children to wear helmets when they ride bikes? It could save a life. It could reduce health care costs. It’s just common sense, isn’t it? In this case, wouldn’t the law simply reflect good decision making by responsible parents? No harm, no foul.

Here’s why: The prescription to wear a helmet subordinates the primary authority of parents to the secondary authority of the state – and, in a free society, parental rights have more to do with lasting freedom than the hope that a helmet law will prevent injury. In other words, while a personal decision to wear a helmet could be about safety, a helmet law isn’t primarily about safety. It’s about freedom.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.