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Posts Tagged ‘individual liberty’

I have written enough in the past about Canada’s (usually successful) attempts to muzzle free speech and monitor thought crimes and enforce some kind of bizarre right to not get your feelings hurt.

But this latest proposed law takes policing your head to an entirely different level. I understand that the proposal has been spurred by Natasha Richardson’s tragic death, but that’s what makes it all the more scary; that so many people’s natural reaction to a tragedy is to clamor for more government regulation.

Considering the fact that ski helmets are fairly useless at speeds higher than 20 mph (an impact leads to a fatal collision of the brain with the inside of the skull, something no helmet can prevent), I wonder if they will next make a rule that declares Newton’s laws of motion illegal.

(Also read: On motorcycle helmet laws and freedom)

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In London (my British friend informs me) it is illegal to ride a bicycle without wearing a helmet. I find that amusing because Londoners can jaywalk legally; so it is the precise opposite of California, where helmets are not mandatory for adult cyclists but jaywalking is illegal. Actually I think that both jaywalking  and riding without a helmet should be legal, but at least (careless) jaywalkers (sometimes) disturb cars by coming in their way and can potentially even cause other people to have accidents. A cyclist without a helmet, on the other hand, is endangering no one but himself; the probability that a cyclist ends up disrupting traffic by some stupid maneuver is not really decreased by forcing him to wear a helmet. So I am not terribly bothered by jaywalking regulations while a helmet mandate would drive me crazy. I don’t think my friend even got the argument; he was clearly arguing from the point of view of relative safety, not individual liberty.

I suppose we cannot escape the nanny-state wherever we go but some laws are more oppressive than others. To give a closely related example, American laws do mandate seatbelts while driving (unless you live in New Hampshire!) but that affects me less personally because first of all, even if you violate this rule it is virtually impossible to get caught by a cop for it and secondly, I would anyway wear a seatbelt most of the time irrespective of the law. Bicycle helmets are another matter — I do not wear them unless I am planning to ride on a busy road for an extended period of time, and more importantly a cop can see from far whether or not you are wearing one, thus making it very easy to get caught.

And you see, there is this little complication: having a paternalistic rule imposed on me offends my morals very strongly. So in short, cycling in London would either make me vulnerable to lots of fines or make me very very angry for a significant part of the day. To save my sanity, I would therefore not cycle. And I really like cycling. 

So, as I informed my friend, the London helmet rule is sufficiently disconcerting to me that I will never accept a long-term position there (of course, even without that rule, Britain is one of the most unlibertarian places in the world). Thankfully, my google searches have so far showed no evidence that I am required to wear a helmet while cycling in Switzerland. In fact I have learnt the happy news that in Denmark, Netherlands and Switzerland — which I have previously mentioned in this blog as probably the three most libertarian countries in the world from a personal issues standpoint — almost no one wears helmets while riding a bike.

It may be a small matter to most people but it’s a big deal to me: the fact that I can bike around in Zurich without going crazy makes me very happy.

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” — Margaret Mead.

As we all know, governments do one thing really well — telling us how to run our lives. Thus, most places in the world (for instance every US state except New Hampshire) makes it mandatory that you wear seatbelts while driving. Surprisingly though, most US states do not require motorcycle riders to wear helmets. How did this strange situation come about?

The answer is fairly simple; motorcyclists, against all odds, fought for their freedom and won it. That stirring story is recounted with delicious pleasure by Jacob Sullum in this old Reason article.

In 2003 there were 5.4 million registered motorcycles in the U.S., compared to about 136 million registered cars. Despite their relatively small numbers, motorcyclists have been far more effective than drivers at resisting traffic safety paternalism. After some initial grumbling, most motorists got used to buckling up and are now unlikely to put up much resistance as states move toward primary enforcement, allowing police to pull people over for not wearing seat belts (as opposed to issuing citations after stopping them for other reasons). By contrast, going back to the 1971 founding of the American Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments (ABATE) by the staff of Easyriders magazine, motorcyclists have been willing to invest the time, effort, and money required to fight helmet laws.

And this happened because motorcyclists, with a fierce passion, think that people ought to be able to lead their lives the way they deem fit. They believe they should have the freedom to make their own choices, including ones that are risky or potentially lethal. And they are prepared to protect this freedom by every means at their disposal.

“Motorcyclists believe in freedom, and we attack anything that is attacking our freedom,” explains Robert Fletcher, coordinator of the Texas ABATE Confederation. “Helmet laws go against the grain of everything this country stands for,” says New York Myke, ABATE of California’s state director and owner of San Diego Harley Davidson. Just as abortion rights groups insist they do not favor abortion, motorcyclist groups are at pains to make it clear they do not oppose helmets. Jeff Hennie, vice president for government relations at the D.C.-based Motorcycle Riders Foundation, says, “What we’re advocating is freedom of choice….It should be the decision of the rider whether to put on extra safety equipment.” He describes the attitude of helmet law opponents this way: “Let me decide what is right for me, instead of the government jamming regulations down my throat.”

[…]

The view of helmets as confining and stifling meshes with the sentiment that forcing people to wear them ruins what is for many riders a visceral experience of freedom. “We’re passionate about our motorcycles,” says ABATE of California’s Myke. “This is something that’s more of a way of life than a hobby or a sport. It really goes to the core of our being….Riding a motorcycle is my celebration of freedom.” Few motorists feel the same way about driving, which for most of us is a workaday means of getting around, not an important part of our identities.

Sullum goes into details about how the motorcyclists argued, demonstrated and lobbied. There were defeats and there were victories. But they never gave up.

What makes their achievement all the more astounding is that they never had either the numbers or the support of the public.

To block or repeal helmet laws, activists must convince legislators to defy public opinion. While a 1978 Louis Harris poll found that 57 percent of Americans thought motorcyclists should be free to ride without helmets, a 2001 survey by the same organization found that 81 percent thought helmets should be required. Add to that the fact that the fatality rate per mile traveled is more than 25 times as high for motorcycles as it is for cars, and the success of helmet law opponents is even more impressive.

But my favourite part of Sullum’s article is the last paragraph, where he is at his eloquent best.

In the final analysis, not enough people took seat belt laws personally. For the most part, whatever objections they harbored were overcome by force of law and force of habit. By contrast, substantial numbers of motorcyclists have complained loudly, conspicuously, and persistently about helmet laws for more than three decades. “Apparently,” says the National Safety Council’s Ulczycki, “legislators are easily convinced that the perceived rights of motorcyclists to injure themselves are more important than the public good.” Aside from the tendentious definition of “the public good,” this gloss is misleading on two counts: Resistance to helmet laws hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t necessarily involved convincing legislators of anything but the motorcyclists’ determination. Politicians didn’t have to understand their passion to respect it. And therein lies a lesson for the world’s busybodies and petty tyrants.

Sullum is right. If a small group of people care strongly enough for liberty, there are ways to make legislators fall in line. For that you do not have to make them understand you, merely make them understand your resoluteness . How I wish car-owners shared some of this passion that motorcyclists have!

However my short review does no justice to Sullum’s long, well-researched and wonderfully narrated article. Read the whole thing.

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From this report:

China could become the first country to classify internet addiction as a clinical disorder amid growing concern over compulsive Web use by millions of Chinese, state media said on Monday.

The health ministry is likely to adopt a new manual on Internet addiction next year drawn up by Chinese psychologists that recognises it as a condition similar to compulsive gambling or alcohol addiction, the China Dail reported.

Nothing wrong with mere classification. The trouble starts when that morphs into coercion. Citing mental illness is one of the favourite tools of governments worldwide to take away people’s rights. This law is just going to be one more way China can lock it’s citizens up.

Just so that my position is clear, I am not against psychiatry per se, nor do I think that mental illness is a myth. I think science can and should be used to cure people of their mental troubles; however any such step must be voluntary just as it is in the case of physical illness. As a moral principle, I am in all circumstances opposed to any form of forced treatment, involuntary commitment or involuntary conservatorship for any adult who retains the faculty to express his or her wishes and is not an imminent danger to other people.

(Hat Tip: Reason Hit and Run)

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