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Posts Tagged ‘nanny-state’

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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Go, suck an egg

From a West Virginia legislator comes this bizarre proposal of banning Barbie dolls because they send the wrong message to young girls etc.

I think the Kardashian sisters’ response is the best. From the Fox story:

“He can suck an egg, seriously. He’s probably butt-ugly and always wanted a girlfriend that looked like Barbie but could never get one. People like that really annoy me,” Khloe Kardashian said, with her sis Kourtney adding that it was “so ridiculous.”

“She’s been around 50 years and girls love her. Its fun, it’s a doll — get over it people,” Kourtney added.

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Wow.

Dear America,

I take it back. I don’t apologize.

Because you know what? It’s none of your goddamned business. I work my ass off 10 months per year. It’s that hard work that gave you all those gooey feelings of patriotism last summer. If during my brief window of down time I want to relax, enjoy myself, and partake of a substance that’s a hell of a lot less bad for me than alcohol, tobacco, or, frankly, most of the prescription drugs most of you are taking, well, you can spare me the lecture.

I put myself through hell. I make my body do things nature never really intended us to endure. All world-class athletes do. We do it because you love to watch us push ourselves as far as we can possibly go. Some of us get hurt. Sometimes permanently. You’re watching the Super Bowl tonight. You’re watching 300 pound men smash each while running at full speed, in full pads. You know what the average life expectancy of an NFL player is? Fifty-five. That’s about 20 years shorter than your average non-NFL player. Yet you watch. And cheer. And you jump up spill your beer when a linebacker lays out a wide receiver on a crossing route across the middle. The harder he gets hit, the louder and more enthusiastically you scream.

Yet you all get bent out of shape when Ricky Williams, or I, or Josh Howard smoke a little dope to relax. Why? Because the idiots you’ve elected to make your laws have have without a shred of evidence beat it into your head that smoking marijuana is something akin to drinking antifreeze, and done only by dirty hippies and sex offenders.

You’ll have to pardon my cynicism. But I call bullshit. You don’t give a damn about my health. You just get a voyeuristic thrill from watching an elite athlete fall from grace–all the better if you get to exercise a little moral righteousness in the process. And it’s hypocritical righteousness at that, given that 40 percent of you have tried pot at least once in your lives.

Here’s a crazy thought: If I can smoke a little dope and go on to win 14 Olympic gold medals, maybe pot smokers aren’t doomed to lives of couch surfing and video games, as our moronic government would have us believe. In fact, the list of successful pot smokers includes not just world class athletes like me, Howard, Williams, and others, it includes Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, the last three U.S. presidents, several Supreme Court justices, and luminaries and success stories from all sectors of business and the arts, sciences, and humanities.

So go ahead. Ban me from the next Olympics. Yank my endorsement deals. Stick your collective noses in the air and get all indignant on me. While you’re at it, keep arresting cancer and AIDS patients who dare to smoke the stuff because it deadens their pain, or enables them to eat. Keep sending in goon squads to kick down doors and shoot little old ladies, maim innocent toddlers, handcuff elderly post-polio patients to their beds at gunpoint, and slaughter the family pet.

Tell you what. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll apologize for smoking pot when every politician who ever did drugs and then voted to uphold or strengthen the drug laws marches his ass off to the nearest federal prison to serve out the sentence he wants to impose on everyone else for committing the same crimes he committed. I’ll apologize when the sons, daughters, and nephews of powerful politicians who get caught possessing or dealing drugs in the frat house or prep school get the same treatment as the no-name, probably black kid caught on the corner or the front stoop doing the same thing.

Until then, I for one will have none of it. I smoked pot. I liked it. I’ll probably do it again. I refuse to apologize for it, because by apologizing I help perpetuate this stupid lie, this idea that what someone puts into his own body on his own time is any of the government’s damned business. Or any of yours. I’m not going to bend over and allow myself to be propaganda for this wasteful, ridiculous, immoral war.

Go ahead and tear me down if you like. But let’s see you rationalize in your next lame ONDCP commercial how the greatest motherfucking swimmer the world has ever seen . . . is also a proud pot smoker.

Yours,

Michael Phelps

For purity, for truth, for passion, for justice, for liberty; this rant has got to be one of the greatest things ever penned. Radley Balko, you rock. If I lived in your neighbourhood, I’d buy you a beer every day.

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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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I missed this post by Andrew Sullivan from a while back.

One reason I’m a conservative is the British National Health Service. Until you have lived under socialism, it sounds like a great idea. It isn’t misery – although watching my parents go through the system lately has been nerve-wracking – but there is a basic assumption. The government collective decides everything. You, the individual patient, and you, the individual doctor, are the least of their concerns. I prefer freedom and the market to rationalism and the collective. That’s why I live here.

Andrew, of course, is a British citizen, who was born and raised there but has been living in the US for a long time now, so his perspective is certainly worthwhile.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that this is mere anecdotal evidence which does not prove anything. Andrew Sullivan’s healthcare experience has been better in the US; there are obviously British citizens who prefer their system. However as long as we keep the anecdotal nature of this statistic in mind, there is nothing to lose by considering it. Indeed, I get the idea that a lot of dyed-in-the-wool liberals who have lived in the US all their life automatically assume that everyone who has lived in single payer prefers it. Quotes like these may at least help them open their minds to the truth.

For the truth is much deeper than that little quote by a popular blogger. Yes, the US healthcare system sucks in many ways. However any system of government mandated healthcare has fundamental drawbacks. Excessive regulation adversely affects medical research and the quality of healthcare provided. It encourages the passage of nanny-state laws designed to compel people to stay healthy. Even the claimed reduction in costs does not necessarily happen in all cases; see this article on the Massachusetts mandate. Above all there is a moral issue — a government mandate involves coercive takings and elimination of choice.

My personal preference leans towards “freedom and the market”, as Sullivan puts it. If the government has to be involved it should do so in the following ways:

1) Change the nature of regulation to light, smart ones designed to reduce costs (those associated with litigation, inefficient record keeping, bureaucratization, compliance with unnecessary rules), increase transparency/information disclosure and foster competition.

2) Replace Medicare etc. with a system of vouchers that can be spent on any health provider.

3) Retain one catastrophic government run health insurance system with a high deductible that would cover everyone in case of emergencies and other catastrophes and deal with the free-rider problem in those situations; eliminate all other government insurance schemes.

These measures are influenced by Milton Friedman’s views, espoused among other places in this article.

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Even in the context of American style conservative nanny-statism, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) is an extraordinary law. A direct offspring of the  “American Values Agenda”, this law, passed in 2006, in combination with the Wire Act effectively prohibits any kind of internet gambling operation in America. The law outlaws games of pure chance like online slot-machines, any kind of wager on the outcome of sporting or election events as well as games of skill like online poker. In April 2007, U.S. Congressman Barney Frank introduced a bill to overturn the Act, saying “The existing legislation is an inappropriate interference on the personal freedom of Americans and this interference should be undone.” On June 7, 2007, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) introduced HR 2610, the Skill Game Protection Act. This act would legalize Internet poker, bridge, chess, and other games of skill. On September 26, 2008, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced S.3616, the Internet Skill Game Licensing and Control Act. This bill would amend title 31, United States Code, to provide for the licensing of Internet skill game facilities, and for other purposes. None of these bills have passed as yet.

It is worth noting that the law only targets the gambling website or a financial institution used for the transaction. The act of gambling itself is legal, or at least quasi-legal in so far that the Feds have never prosecuted an individual for gambling online. Nonetheless, the presence of the UIGEA means that it extremely difficult to find a website that will accept a customer living in the USA.

There are many laws that take away individual freedom in order to protect a person from his own choices. However, there are two features that make the UIGEA particularly egregious.

First of all, the Act is blatantly discriminatory because physical gambling is already legal in much of the USA. One can go to a Vegas casino and legally play all the games that the UIGEA bans. So an important consequence of the Act is that it helps boost the business of influential Las Vegas hotels. Corporatism and special interests have always played their part in the Bush administration and this law is another example where a policy that favors large business houses is cloaked in the garb of public interest.

Secondly, the American government has decided that the UIGEA not only applies to companies based in the US but also any internet company situated anywhere in the world that accepts a bet from an American. Most of these companies have been forced to shut down their US business after the passage of this act. Those that were less careful paid harshly. On July 16, 2006 David Carruthers, the CEO of BetOnSports, an UK based online gambling website, was arrested at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in Texas while changing planes on his way from the United Kingdom to Costa Rica. He is still under 24 hours house detention in a hotel in St. Louis awaiting trial. Shortly later, Gary Kaplan, the founder of the same company, was arrested in the Dominican Republic. He was extradited into U.S. custody with the help of the Interpol and currently faces up to 83 years of imprisonment. The Canadian founders of Neteller, strong opponents of the UIGEA, were similarly detained while on a visit to the US.

All this despite the fact that operating a gambling website is fully legal in all the countries that these individuals were based in.

Notwithstanding the Kaplan episode, the actual probability of the US extraditing the operator of an online gambling company from another country is low. This is primarily for diplomatic reasons, as outlined in this excellent paper. However, if such a person ever accidentally sets foot on US soil, woe befall.

The real damage of the UIGEA, however, is to millions of American customers whose basic freedom to spend their money in the way they want is curtailed. This point of view was eloquently presented by Radley Balko, senior Reason editor and popular blogger, in a courageous testimony to the US Congress:

Online poker is merely a new evolution of the game, similar to the way Civil War poker games introduced the straight, and gave us variations like draw and stud poker. The Internet merely removes the geographic barrier preventing those who love the game from finding opponents of similar skill who are willing to wager similar amounts of money.

No one is hurt when two or more consenting adults sit down for a game of poker, be it online or in person. Why any of this should be of concern to the federal government is rather perplexing. I respect the fact that many Americans—and many members of Congress—may have moral objections to gambling, online or otherwise. To them, I’d say, simply, “don’t gamble, then.”

But in a nation where Las Vegas is one of our fastest growing cities and most popular tourist destinations, where Indian casinos are commonplace, where horse racing is a national past time, and where nearly every state in the union derives public funds from state lotteries, singling out Internet gambling for prohibition seems arbitrary and, frankly, hypocritical.

Yes, it’s possible a parent could bet away their family’s savings, or their child’s education fund in an online poker game. They could also fritter that money away on eBay. Or on booze. Or fancy cars and exotic travel.

These are all personal decisions, of course. And if a free society means anything, it means we should have the freedom to make bad choices, in addition to good ones. The ban on Internet gambling punishes the millions of Americans who were wagering online responsibly due to anecdotal evidence of a few who may do so irresponsibly. It’s an affront to personal responsibility, and symptomatic of a Nanny Statist government that treats its citizens like children. A government based on the principle of liberty doesn’t police the personal lives of its citizens for bad habits, at any level, much less at the federal level.

The UIGEA also happens to be one of those nanny-state laws that has personally affected me.

I wrote earlier how betting on political futures is a smart investment for the politically savvy citizen. However, when I actually wanted to place a bet on the election results, I found that most websites refused to accept my credit card. Finally I found one, Sportsbook, that did. After doing some research and satisfying myself that Sportsbook is one of the most reputable and reliable companies in the online gambling business, I placed a significant bet on Obama winning the election and a smaller bet on his winning Florida. This was at a time when my calculated probability of his winning these two was significantly higher than the perception of the typical American adult, as a result of which I got excellent odds.

I ended up making an eighty percent profit and put in a withdrawal request. However it was taking some time for my money to reach me, so after two weeks I asked them what the matter was. To my surprise, I got an immediate and friendly reply. They explained in detail exactly what the problem was. They stated unambiguously that they had never missed a payment and they will ensure I get my money. However, the UIGEA forced them to resort to long-winded payment procedures to circumvent the law. They send me a link to this post that explained exactly how they do it

From then on, they sent me a weekly update about the status of my withdrawal request. And when they finally said the cheque was on its way, I received it in a couple of days.

So here’s my recommendation. If you want to place an online bet, use Sportsbook. Their exemplary customer service was the one shining light in this whole sordid episode.

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The Center for Science in the Public Interest is an interesting organization. Ostensibly, its purpose is to be a “strong advocate for nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol policy, and sound science”. It publishes a health newsletter and has several programs to educate the public on various issues related to science, nutrition and public health.

Scratch deeper, and a frightening picture emerges. The CSPI is one of those entities that believes in science but not in freedom. It believes in equating the nutritious and the safe  with the universally good, and is happy to enforce these value judgements on others by any means at their disposal.

Their latest target is “alcoholic energy drinks”. This is from their website:

The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest today filed suit against MillerCoors Brewing Company, formerly Miller, over its alcoholic energy drink, Sparks. The product has more alcohol than regular beer and contains unapproved additives, including the stimulants caffeine and guarana. The lawsuit is asking the Superior Court of the District of Columbia to stop MillerCoors from selling the controversial drink, which is also under scrutiny from state attorneys general.

Drinkers of caffeinated alcoholic drinks are more likely to binge drink, ride with an intoxicated driver, become injured, or be taken advantage of sexually than drinkers of non-caffeinated alcoholic drinks, according to a 2007 study conducted at Wake Forest University.

Sparks products contain 6 to 7 percent alcohol by volume, as opposed to regular beer, which typically has 4 or 5 percent alcohol. Also unlike beer, Sparks’ appeal to young people is enhanced by its sweet citrusy taste, redolent of SweeTarts candy, and the bright color of orange soda. (Sparks Light also contains the artificial sweetener sucralose). In October, MillerCoors plans to release Sparks Red, which will have 8 percent alcohol by volume.

They have already stopped Anheuser-Busch from selling a similar product. Shockingly, they do not have an action project to ban the serving of coffee to a customer who has had a glass of wine — yet.

The rest of their website contains arguments in a similar vein. They go on about how the raising of the drinking age has saved lives, how alcohol is a terrible drug that deserves to be severely restricted from just about every place imaginable, how the trans fat ban will save fifty thousand lives a year and so on. They want to employ every coercive technique imaginable to stop such horrors from happening.

It always surprises me when I read this kind of analysis.

In the CSPI worldview, the only negative costs are those that are directly measurable, such as death and disease. Any action that reduces these figures is good. But clearly extending this reasoning to everything leads to absurdities. For instance, ban all cars today and the number of speeding related deaths will become zero. No one advocates such a thing because the costs in terms of inconvenience, quality of life and — may I mention it — freedom will be too high. How is it that when they rile against unhealthy or unsafe foods and drinks, they completely neglect the intrinsic cost of taking away from millions of users something that they enjoy? How is it that they put absolutely no weight in their analysis upon the fact that they are taking away my basic right to live my life the way I deem fit?

It is possible that CSPI is acting in good faith and in their moral code, these intrinsic costs are negligible or at any rate, low enough to merit coercive regulation.

But everyone has a core, inalienable ethical belief and here is mine. There’s only one word that accurately describes actions such as those of CSPI. That word is “evil”. It is irrelevant to my moral code that they may not view things the same way. There is simply no other way I can think of people who believe in imposing their personal choices on others. And unlike bandits or robbers who commit crimes for their gain, the evil that such organizations do never stop.

(Hat Tip: Reason Hit and Run)

Also read:

Jacob Sullum’s old article on CSPI and their pseudoscience.

My post on smoking bans in San Francisco.

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