Of human projectiles and personal liberties

· Thought

I like seatbelts. They’re great. You know what isn’t great? The paternalistic guise masking the ongoing and gradual confiscation of individual liberty. That one’s bad. As much as I like seatbelts, I (used to) think I shouldn’t be forced to wear one. If I have an itching compulsion to become uncomfortably familiar with the stitching on my steering wheel upholstery, then by God almighty I should be allowed to. If a like-minded soul has a like-itching compulsion to soar like a bald-headed eagle screeching capital-F Freedom through the remains of their windshield, then by God almighty they should be allowed to. Your body is your body, and you should be damn well free to dispose of it through whatever means tickle you.

All of the above is completely true. [especially the date this was posted.] But there’s more to it. Let’s disregard whether my car turning me into a human railgun projectile will hurt anyone else. Maybe I get lucky and miss hitting anyone. I certainly won’t be healthy. Some miserable EMT has to scrape me up from the road and plop me into a bucket in the ambulance. Some disdainful doctor has to deal with my entire body being one big road rash. Some miffed taxpayers will have to foot the bill for me going through the medical system. Upon reflection, it seems my projectile-body has collected a few people on the way. Sure, the EMT and doctor expect to be doing this. Sure, the taxpayer expects to be paying for a healthcare system. But if everyone stopped wearing seatbelts? Assuming ceteris paribus in terms of road accidents, there’s not going to be anyone healthy enough to be paying tax to foot the bill. Seatbelt laws may infringe on your liberty, but not wearing one actually affects quite a few people. We need the laws to keep people strapped in and society ticking over.

This argument was a revelation for me. I’m now resolute in my belief that you shouldn’t get to soar like an eagle. Stick to hang-gliding. This argument is a troubling revelation, though. If we’re set on stopping behaviour that has an unacceptable and avoidable drain on society’s (medical) resources, why am I allowed to ride a motorcycle? Why doesn’t junk food have a tax or fine? We tax smoking to ease the burden smokers place on the healthcare system 1. This is a tricky one. Let’s ignore the fact that laws aren’t passed in as logical a fashion as if law X exists, we should implement law Y. What’s going on here is a delicate balance between imposition and benefit.

In a lovely appeal to my computer scientist brain, laws are an optimisation problem. They should (and sometimes actually do) impose a minimum restriction on freedom for the maximum potential benefit. Banning motorcycles would piss a lot of people off and shut down a massive economic sector. No ban. Taxing fast food would probably stop people eating crappy food and ease the obesity epidemic the world faces2. Maybe we should, then?

These are threads that need to be pulled at. Balancing liberty and the public good is one of the many scales the public good finds itself upon. Sometimes we can find ourselves floundering when we try to explain the gut feelings behind our decisions. If we frame the problems properly (maybe even as computer science problems), we can reduce that burden and even uncover our next steps forward.

  1. Though I’m sure there are more reprehensible motives involving the establishment of a surefire source of revenue from drug addicts ↩︎

  2. Of course, healthy food should be cheaper, too. This is but one half of the carrot or stick. ↩︎