Owning yourself

Earlier this week, in Massachusetts, a miracle occurred.

For years, the drive towards an absolute seat belt law has won incremental victory after victory. First, seat belts were mandated for children. Then, after a bitter fight, including a public vote against it, they were made mandatory for adults. The only last two hurdles were making them a primary-enforcement offense (meaning that the police can pull you over for not wearing your belt, instead of having to find another reason to detain you) and making it a surchargeable offense (meaning that a seat belt violation would adversely affect your insurance rates).

Despite repeated promises to the contrary (which no one believed anyway), last year the legislature started once again to make the seat belt law a primary offense. And it looked like a done deal: the leaders of both houses of the legislature were strongly backing the measure, and Governor Romney (to the disappointment and outrage of many of his supporters) announced he would sign it.

But somehow, when the House came to vote on the final form of the bill and send it off to the Senate and Governor for rubber-stamping, it failed.

The backers of the measure cited that Massachusetts has the 48th worst record for seat belt usage of the 49 states that require seat belt laws, and that the federal government could withhold highway funds if they don’t do something about those numbers.

The sole state without a mandatory seat belt law for adults is, of course, New Hampshire.

In Massachusetts, as in many places, the prevailing mentality is that it is the duty of government to advise people about the proper way to do things. They study matters extensively, then choose the one solution that they believe works best for most people and recommend it. And then, they start urging it. Then they start compelling it. Finally, they reach the point where they mandate that one solution, regardless of its applicability.

Auto safety is a prime example. Air bags are required on all new cars, and it is a violation of federal law to disable the air bag. It took years for the law to get changed so those people who feel threatened by air bags (such as the very short, who would most likely be killed by a deploying air bag, if not decapitated outright), and even then they wrapped the process in so much paperwork and red tape that the chances of finding someone who will actually deactivate your air bag is almost impossible.

It also forced parents to start carrying their children in the back seat, out of sight, because passenger airbags would almost certainly kill any child sitting there. Whether or not it is a good idea, the government took that decision out of parents’ hands.

Here in New Hampshire, we put the brakes on that process early on. We did the studies, published the recommendations, and passed a law requiring seat belts for those under 18. And then we stopped.

We do not believe in having the government do all our thinking for us, taking care of us from every possible danger. We do not WANT that to happen — we want to learn for ourselves what is good and what is bad, because in that process we learn HOW to take care of ourselves. We do not want to become dependent on the government.

So, here in New Hampshire, if you’re over 18 and you don’t want to wear your seat belt, fine. Hell, if you want to ride your motorcycle without a helmet, go for it.

Yes, some people will make the wrong choices. Some of those will pay for those wrong choices. Some will learn from them, and some will not. Some will even pay for those wrong choices with their lives.

But it is not the place of government to protect people from themselves. Only in extreme cases, when the individual has proven themselves so incompetent to care for themselves should government intervene — that’s why we have civil commitment procedures, to protect the incompetent, the infirm, the insane from doing harm to others and themselves. But to extend that to the general populace is fundamentally wrong.

In Massachusetts, as well as in many other places, a case can be made that the general populace has become so incompetent that they cannot care for themselves, that they need to be “wards of the state” for their own protection. But it was the state that led to that infirmity, as they slowly, over years, began intervening more and more into what rightly should be personal decisions “for our own good” or under the guise of “promoting the general welfare.”

In the end, the one thing we own, the one thing we possess that cannot be taken from us, is ourselves.

But it can be given away.

Here in New Hampshire, we still own ourselves. We still view government as a necessary evil, and eye it suspiciously. We trust it so little because, for the most part, our government is made up of our neighbors — and we KNOW them. We know we wouldn’t trust ourselves with the kind of power people in other states give their governments, so we’re sure as hell not going to trust others.

Here in New Hampshire, we don’t believe in protecting people from their own stupid decisions. We will tell them not to do something stupid. We will shout at them. We will spell out just why it is stupid, and what the likely consequences of their stupidity will be. We will even offer incentives to get people to do the smart thing.

But if, after all that, someone still wants to be an idiot, then that is their free and fair choice. We don’t own them, and if they want to put themselves in that kind of danger, that is their choice. At that point, the only thing we can do is hope for the best — and perhaps their bad example will teach others about the folly of their deeds. The more you make something “foolproof,” the better the odds that you’ll end up discovering a greater fool than you thought possible.

My mother always used to say that everyone in life has a purpose, even if it’s just to be a bad example. And she was so very right.

Enron Jury Reaches a Verdict
Laying the groundwork for a pyrrhic victory


  1. Pro Cynic May 25, 2006
  2. Publicus May 25, 2006
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  28. bill R June 8, 2006