Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Car Seats and Libertarianism

We're shopping for child car seats right now, and so I was reading this article with interest. I was stunned by this figure:

The push for car-seat changes is also prompted by data showing the use of child restraints cuts car-collision deaths dramatically. Between 1993 and 2006, the number of child passengers who died in motor-vehicle accidents dropped by 50 per cent, according to Transport Canada, which attributes the decline to improved design and greater use of child restraints.

Deaths dropped by 50 percent in that time period due simply to improved designs. And what spurred the improved designs? Incredibly restrictive government regulations. Basically, if you live in the US or Canada, it's impossible to buy a crappy child car seat in a store. They differ in features and some are more basic than others, but they all have to pass the same rigorous tests. This is a great example of the positive role government can play in our lives.

That might seem like an obvious thing to say, but it poses a big problem for libertarianism. Extreme libertarians submit that the only justifiable role for government is to provide security and enforce contracts. Anything else begins to impinge on individual freedom. What might their response to this car seat story be? It would go something like this: the government has no right to prevent me from buying a crappy, unsafe car seat if I wish to. That's a decision for each individual to make according to their conscience. Let the market take care of it. If there is demand for cheap, unsafe car seats, then we should let manufacturers supply them. The government shouldn't be intervening in markets and in people's free choices.

I think pure libertarianism is not more popular because of scenarios like this, where most people recognize that there is a serious moral problem in respecting the free choice of a few individuals at the cost of thousands of lives. Quite a few people call themselves libertarians, but I think there are very few people who don't have at least a few pet causes that they think merit government intervention or regulation. In my experience, most people who call themselves libertarians are in fact conservatives who resent the government's role in a few areas but promote it in many others.

A libertarian might now respond to the car seat discussion by clarifying that an individual should be free to act as they wish only as long as they are not harming others, and that in this case harm (or potential harm) is clearly being done and so government intervention is justified. So what about cases where there is no obvious victim or harm being done? Helmet laws are a useful case. Why should cyclists be forced to wear helmets? If a car hits them, they are probably the only ones who are going to be hurt. Shouldn't they be free to make that choice if they aren't concerned with their safety? One rebuttal is that riding without a helmet isn't really a victimless crime; any injuries sustained tend to drive up medical and insurance costs for everyone. But let's pretend that that's not true and that the cyclist really is the only victim of their refusal to wear a helmet. Are the regulations wrong in that case? These discussions tend to boil down to a matter of self-ownership. Do we own ourselves? The obvious immediate answer seems to be yes, but consideration of the types of scenarios offered by Michael Sandel might make us reconsider:

Should a person be free to donate an organ even if it means they will certainly die? Should someone be free to offer their life and body to a cannibalistic killer? (Believe it or not, these aren't hypotheticals but real-life scenarios) In a future post I'll try to summarize Sandel's discussion in more depth. But suffice it to say that there are many scenarios which strongly question our intuitive belief that we completely own ourselves. It remains to be seen whether that will shake anybody's beliefs about helmet laws, but it is something that needs to be addressed by pure libertarians.

Finally, a core weakness of libertarianism is that it has a very narrow conception of liberty (essentially just negative liberty). There's a lot more to liberty than being left alone.

No comments: