Regarding my previous post, a reader writes:
Wearing a helmet reduces risk of damage. The cost of a helmet is moderate enough that most people, who can purchase a motorbike, can afford it. Besides, there are no problems with forcing people to wear helmets, except for the cost price and the price of “freedom”. Why do you advocate that compulsory helmet laws be revoked?
Well, the answer, in brief, is John Stuart Mill’s harm principle. 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.
Of course, people disagree on what constitutes harm. Left-liberals often cite the indirect harm that certain business practices by large companies cause — in their view — to certain sections of the population. They use this reasoning to justify government regulation of corporations. Libertarians, on the other hand, take a much more restrictive meaning of the word ‘harm.’
However one defines harm though, it is hard to make the case that not wearing helmets harms others. If you are really adamant, you might say that that the increase in critical injuries might have an effect on everyone’s insurance rates. However, for one, the change will surely be negligible, and secondly, the obvious answer to this is to not subsidise health insurance with tax money. In any case, if helmet laws are repealed, insurance companies will probably charge higher premiums of those who decide to ride their bikes without an helmet.
Thus, mandatory helmet laws are not compatible with the harm principle. They directly run counter to the idea of individual freedom — the right to do with your life as you deem fit. They are by no means the only such laws. There are other laws that seek to ban behaviors that harm no one else. Some of them — such as Article 377 of the Indian Penal code that criminalizes homosexuality — are much more insidious.
However, anyone who is serious about defending individual freedom is obligated to speak out against all of these and not merely the ones that cause the most harm. For one, paternalistic laws such as those that mandate the wearing of helmets display a certain philosophy of governance that spill off into other issues. A government that does not respect personal autonomy in one sphere is unlikely to do so in another. As David Wiegel put it:
There’s no such thing as trivial nanny-stating. There is legislation that affects personal behavior a lot and legislation that affects it only a little. But it’s part of one continuum; the pol who believes he can enhance public health by limiting public choice believes he can fix many other problems by limiting that choice. One success follows another. The critics of one minor quality-of-life law wither away, and it’s easy to imagine the next round of critics meeting the same date with obscurity.
Secondly, costs and benefits, as I never tire of pointing out, are different for different people. It is therefore not entirely logical to dismiss the burden on freedom as small in the helmet case. If you advocate helmet laws, you can use the same argument to ban any activity for which, in your opinion, the joy derived is low enough when weighed against the possibility of extreme harm. For instance, consider the act of having sex with a person you barely know. What’s there to prevent an overzealous paternalist from enacting a law that mandates the use of protection for such activity? Wearing an helmet might seem like a minor inconvenience but so really is the act of wearing a condom. Turning this around, there are surely many people for whom the pleasure derived from the act of not wearing an helmet is at least as high as the pleasure certain others get from not having to bother about condoms during sex. Furthermore, the risk of contracting a serious venereal disease such as AIDS from unprotected sex — at least if you are promiscuous enough — is surely comparable to the risk of incurring a serious injury on account of not wearing a helmet. Think about it.
Thus it makes little sense for those who oppose government intervention into sexual matters to support mandatory helmet laws. And to see this, you do not have to believe in the harm principle.
But try explaining all this to the nanny-staters.