Posts Tagged ‘harm principle’

Every libertarian has a pet peeve, and mine is paternalism. Yes, I am deeply disturbed by the warspolice militarization, Obama’s pursuit of whistleblowers, regulations which make it illegal to do math without a license, and many other freedom-snuffing things. But the kind of stuff that gets me most riled up are laws to protect people from themselves.

It is impossible to have a discussion of these laws without referring to the following passage from John Stuart Mill’s influential work On liberty. The sentence in bold from the excerpt below is usually called the harm principle and is a cornerstone of libertarianism.

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle … 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 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 opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, 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.

I suspect that many liberal-progressive types agree with the harm principle on some level. So they often tend to justify paternalistic laws not on paternalistic grounds but on the grounds of limiting negative externalities. For instance, in their support for motorcycle helmet laws, their argument might echo that of the Massachusetts high court, which in 1972 (when it affirmed that a motorcycle helmet law was rationally related to the public welfare) declared:

From the moment of injury, society picks the person up off the highway; delivers him to a municipal hospital and municipal doctors; provides him with unemployment compensation if, after recovery, he cannot replace his lost job; and, if the injury causes disability, may assume the responsibility for his and his family’s continued subsistence. We do not understand a state of mind that permits plaintiff to think that only he himself is concerned.

In other words, your decision to ride un-helmeted harms other people, and so society can rightfully coerce you to wear a helmet.

The word “harm”, of course, needs to be interpreted narrowly in order that the harm principle be meaningful. A harsh word hurts. Breakups hurt. Abandoning your wife and going off with someone else may cause intense emotional harm. Everytime I buy something from X and not from his competitor Y, I am harming Y and favoring X. All these activities are legal, and should be.  Only kinds of harm that directly violate others’ rights (by causing violence upon them, or depriving them of their life, liberty, or property) should enter into the calculus.

Still, it is clear that if society is forced to pay extra because of someone’s recklessness, it is indeed a harm inflicted by the reckless individual upon the other members of society; who then might be justified in their intervention. This is what the high court affirmed in its ruling. In doing so, however, the court committed an elementary (but common) mistake; the failure to consider the alternative. The pertinent questions — when considering whether there should be a helmet mandate — are the following:

  • Does a person who rides unhelmeted cause a negative externality greater than one who wears a helmet?
  • Can any such negative externality be removed (i.e. internalized) without resorting to a helmet mandate?

Let us tackle the first question first. It is almost an article of faith among many that the unsafe and the unhealthy incur higher health costs. However, a recent study by Dutch researchers found that smokers and the obese typically cost less to society than the average person, the reason being that they die younger. It is likely that similar conclusions hold for several other activities that the safety brigade frowns upon. There is no doubt that a typical mountaineer or a base jumper spends much less over his lifetime on health and hospital costs than your average grandpa. So even if one lives in a jurisdiction where health costs are socialized, the argument that these people cost more to society, and hence their unhealthy/unsafe activites should be restricted, is specious.

The data on motorcycle helmets is more ambiguous. Some studies have found that riding unhelmeted reduces health costs per person (for the same reason as above, namely untimely death). Others have found a slight increase. For instance a 1996 NHTSA study showed average inpatient hospital charges for unhelmeted motorcyclists in crashes were 8 percent higher than for helmeted riders ($15,578 compared with $14,377). Now, that’s a small difference, and it is worth noting that the study only considered motorcyclists who were actually admitted to a hospital. When those who die on the spot are included, it is quite possible that riding unhelmeted actually reduces costs to society. There is also evidence that helmet mandates make little difference to  insurance premiums. Currently there are 30 American states where there is no universal helmet law for motorcyclists. There are 20 states where such a law does exist. The health insurance premiums across these states show almost no correlation with helmet laws. None of this is to say that it is good to be reckless or unhealthy, merely that the claim that by doing so you cost extra to society is often not true.

For the sake of argument, however, let us assume that there is indeed a significant negative externality associated with the act of not wearing a helmet. I would argue that this does not justify a mandate. What it does justify are steps to internalize this externality. How can this be done? By making sure that those who ride helmetless pay for the consequences. Here’s a proposal: Every motorcyclist who does not wear a helmet should be forced to either a) carry adequate insurance, or b) have proof of sufficient personal funds, or c) pay a certain amount of money annually into a common pool that would pay for any accident related costs not covered by their insurance; the amount would be empirically adjusted to ensure that unhelmeted motorcyclists, as a group, are cost-neutral for the taxpayer with relation to their helmeted counterparts, or d) sign a waiver that no part of their health or other costs reasonably attributable to their decision to not wear a helmet can be charged to the taxpayer. Furthermore, insurance companies, if they wish, should be allowed to charge an extra premium on helmetless riders.

People often go bonkers saying that they do not care to pay for risky decisions taken by others. Well, they don’t need to! Switzerland, the country I currently live in, has the right attitude about some of these things. The Swiss mountains are beautiful but many of the activities people love to do here (hiking, skiing, mountaineering, sledging, climbing, paragliding, base-jumping and so on) carry inherent risks. They do not ban any of these things here or mandate protective gear (a recent straw poll on a Verbier ski-slope found almost everyone, including the helmeted, opposed to compulsory ski-helmets) or even skimp on the protections. In fact, every time someone is in trouble and calls for help so that he can be airlifted out, a helicopter comes in swiftly for the rescue. What they do later, however, is to make an airlifted person pay the bill. Unless, of course, the person is already a patron of REGA, which one can do by paying a measly sum of 30 francs. Most avid adventurers choose to do so, and this small fee (which is basically an insurance premium) covers any heli-rescues they may need to avail of. So if you happen to need an airlift, and you aren’t a REGA patron, you pay for your rescue to the last cent. If you are a patron, you don’t pay anything. Externality internalized.

The proposal on internalizing public costs due to helmetlessness that I briefly sketched above is similar in spirit. I really don’t see how anyone committed to the harm principle can reject such a proposal and continue to defend helmet mandates. Yet, I know from experience that many will. I think the reason is that many of those arguing for mandates on grounds of externalities haven’t really thought carefully about externalities, nor do they really care. As evidenced above, the externalities related to motorcycle helmets, whether positive or negative, are most certainly negligible as a fraction of total costs; no one will notice any real difference in taxes or insurance premiums whatever the helmet law. There are all kinds of legal activities that people regularly do that create far, far, larger externalities, or involve much bigger risks. Then there’s the fact that the people who call loudly for helmet laws (whether it be motorcycling, cycling or skiing) only do so when someone tragically dies, but they barely notice it if someone is injured and requires expensive long-term care. Yet it is the former that actually saves the taxpayer money. When these same people resort to the specious “externality” argument while debating their helmet laws, I want to scream at them: “Stop arguing in bad faith.”

In fact, the act of riding a motorcycle itself is highly risky; whether or not one wears a helmet makes a difference in only a small number of cases (if a motorcyclist gets into a serious crash, a helmet will rarely save him). Yet very few people would support actually banning motorcycles. If one only cared about externalities and costs to the taxpayer, one should support regulations and counteracting measures roughly in proportion to the size of the externalities. In reality, the regulations reflect the size of the moral disapproval. It is stupid to ride without a helmet. It is such a completely unnecessary risk. Riding helmetless or not wearing a seatbelt is incredibly foolish. There should be a federal law stopping all these. Period.

The true reason behind paternalism (whatever the purported reason) is the desire of people to impose their values on others. Quite simply, paternalists ignore that different people have different values. Like all nannies, they think they know best. They decide what risks are acceptable and what risks are unnecessary. They fail to see that maximizing health is not the same as maximizing happiness. To some people, the joy of riding down a hill, unencumbered by a helmet, unweighed by laws, feeling the wind in your face and hair, is indeed worth the risk of severe injury or death. Besides, there is an inherent value to freedom. As Jacob Sullum put it, when it comes to how people feel about their lives, they may well prefer to make their own bad choices rather than have better ones imposed on them.

Most people has a deep seated urge to control others and bring them to the “right” path. It is important to be able to recognize this urge as the greatest evil. Libertarians oppose laws that mandate helmets or seatbelts, and those that prohibit drug use, prostitution, raw milk sales and the infinitely many other things the unwashed masses are supposed to keep away from. Yes, we personally may not indulge in or encourage most of these behaviors. But we recognize our decision to do so for what it is, an exercise of our own values and cost-benefit analyses, which may not match those of others.


The group was driving south on Route 11 in Lafayette around 1:30 p.m., headed toward Lake Como, just south of the Finger Lakes. It was a nice day, but they were there to make a point.

In the group was Philip Contos, from Parish, NY, and he was 55 years old. They were participating in a helmet protest ride initiated by ABATE, an organisation that opposes mandatory helmet laws. A beautiful day it was, but Philip’s bootlaces got stuck in a chain. The biker looked down to inspect the problem, looked up and saw traffic slowing and slammed on the brakes. The bike fishtailed, and he was ejected. He hit the ground with a crunch and he died on the spot.

He died on the spot. What did he die for? Was it to preserve his freedom to be an idiot, a rebel, a reckless individual? Perhaps he would have survived if he was wearing a helmet. But then again, if there was no law in New York that mandated helmets, he would not be out protesting that day, that beautiful day, and maybe his shoelaces would have not stuck in the chain…. His brother, Richard Contos, said Philip would do it again, if he could. “He would have wanted it that way. … He protested everything.” So, who was this man who protested everything?

I never met Philip Contos, but I feel joined to him. 

He died defending the freedom to be himself, to be free of moral busybodies telling him how to lead his life. I would probably wear a helmet if I did ride a motorcycle, but if I were in New York that makes it illegal to ride without one, I’d probably be joining Contos in his protest.

Helmets make one safer. But safety is just one thing among many. We do not have to live life in a way that maximizes safety. We have the right to make whatever trade-offs we wish in our personal decisions. He died defending this sacred right.

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(Post updated)

I haven’t had time to post much of late but here are excerpts from two posts today that express accurately what I feel about those matters. Isn’t the internet great?

Todd Seavey on why the ambiguity of property rights at the boundaries does not mean that the concept becomes less important or that we should reject it as the basis of libertarian philosophy:

Now, a few very bright, well-informed commenters over the past few weeks who consider themselves more or less libertarians have said they think libertarianism is as guilty of being amorphous as feminism (and, crucially, that’s not my biggest complaint about feminism), with one noting that even hardcore anarcho-capitalist David Friedman (son of Milton) points out tough cases such as whether the photons from someone’s flashlight falling upon you constitute trespass. But such examples were meant to address ambiguities in a property rights system, not ambiguity about whether property rights are central to his/our philosophy, as Will Wilkinson at least seems to think is debatable. [..] It’s important to distinguish between saying property rights are 100% rigid and unambiguous (which I’m not really saying) and saying property rights and property rights violations are the central concerns of the philosophy and provide the traditional litmus test for what is or is not considered permissible under a libertarian regime (and this I certainly am saying, as are plenty of other people).

I couldn’t have put it better. The system of property rights form the moral basis of libertarianism. Like any other system, there are potential intellectual riddles associated with its application to certain areas. The existence of certain complexities and ambiguities at the boundaries of a system does not mean that there is something fundamentally wrong with applying the system in the vast majority of cases where it is well-defined. It simply means that in those extreme cases, a bit of subtlety and intellectual care is needed. (*)

Next, here is Radley Balko (‘The Agitator’) on the recent ridiculous standoff in Boston where a SWAT team surrounded a woman’s house because she bought too many Christmas presents for the poor. Apparently, they feared she was mentally disturbed.

We’re seeing this more and more. Mentally unstable people who present an immediate threat to others is one thing. But sending the SWAT teams after someone who’s depressed, or even suicidal, is absurd. Even if Michalosky was contemplating suicide (and it appears she wasn’t), why is that any of the police department’s business? And who thought pointing a bunch of guns at her head would be an appropriate course of treatment?

Radley’s point, and I whole-heartedly agree, is that even if the police had just cause to believe that she was mentally disturbed (and in this case they didn’t, unless they think philanthropy is a mental disease) they had no business coming after her. As John Stuart Mill put it, the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his or her will, is to prevent harm to others. Period.

(*) Another example of where property rights become hazy is when we are dealing with a commons (such as the environment) that can be altered by the actions of our private property (such as cars) and that in turn can affect other private property detrimentally (by injecting polluted air into another’s lungs, or by flooding towns). Once again, this is a situation that calls not for abandonment of our freedoms and property rights but for intellectual care. Unlike some other libertarians, I do not doubt that anthropogenic global warming is real; however any solution must strike a balance between the various interests involved, both moral and economic. For instance, systems like cap-and-trade or carbon tax are less freedom restricting than blanket bans or other government mandated strict regulation. Unfortunately, some environmentalists and politicians are prone to making wildly exaggerated claims and advocating coercive methods on this topic. That is destructive — both to liberty and to science.

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