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Dismantle the Nanny State? July 19, 2006

Posted by federalist in Economic Policy, Government Regulation, Social Politics.
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A recently repealed law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets is a hot issue in Pennsylvania.  At first glance it always seems odd that government is in the business of coercing people into taking care of themselves by criminalizing voluntary behaviors that put nobody else at risk.  Doesn’t a citizen have the right to endanger himself?

Well, no.  For example, as explained today by Pennsylvania State Representative Tony Melio, “The cost to care for someone who is seriously injured in a motorcycle accident falls on us all.”  Or to put it more pointedly, we forfeited the right to put ourselves at risk when we demanded that everyone else take care of us.

We created this nanny state, and we gave up some personal freedom in the process.  If the government could just sweep injured motorcyclists into a ditch and leave them there, then presumably anyone could ride around not only helmeted but also blindfolded for all the government cares.

Motorcycle helmets may be a more extreme case, but in general it seems that we have achieved an odd compromise between individual liberty and mutual responsibilities, as enforced by our government.  When the only risk of an activity is certain and immediate death I guess it doesn’t really matter.  Burials all cost pretty much the same, and everyone gets one of those.  But we have not outlawed plenty of purely voluntary dangerous activities that frequently result in taxpayers funding extremely expensive rescue and rehabilitation efforts.  For example (and in no particular order): Smoking, extreme off-trail skiing, abusing alcohol, diving….

I haven’t been able to find any good statistics on this, which is surprising.  While we’re paying for everyone’s rescue and rehabilitation, and requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, we should at least establish some general guidelines so that we know what dangerous activities are forbidden and why.  For example:

  • What is the expected cost to rescue a person engaging in the activity in the event of the accident?
  • What is the expected cost to attempt to resuscitate a person in the event of an accident.
  • What is the probability of an accident resulting in disability, and what is the expected lifetime cost of that disability that would be born by the taxpayers?
  • Does the activity have any productive effects that would counterbalance the risks?  (E.g., motorcycling is also transportation, and the alternative to driving a motorcycle may be to drive a car, which has its own costs and risks.)

Insurance companies have legions of actuaries to answer questions like these.  The problem is that government has undertaken to provide a great deal of insurance without systematically assessing and controlling for the costs of that insurance.

Which brings me to another question: If a motorcyclist could buy a private insurance policy to cover any injury or cost incurred while riding without a helmet, would the government exempt him from its helmet laws?

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