More Government Does Not Mean Less Freedom

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What anti-government zealots fail to appreciate is that when our democratic government restricts people’s behavior, this is usually a very good thing. We want the government to restrict the freedom of many people – people who would otherwise do a great deal of damage to us, our families, and our society. We don’t want burglars free to rob, or rapists free to attack women, or murders free to kill people. Nor do we want shady businessmen free to defraud investors and customers, or factories free to dump poisons in our air and water, or drug companies free to sell dangerous or worthless medicines. To create an ordered, prosperous, and just society – something we all want – we inevitably have to have a government that will not let everyone do what they want. In short, restricting some people’s freedom is in the public interest. Naturally, we don’t always agree on when these coercive measures are justified. Sometimes the harm to individuals may not be worth the gains to the public interest. But while we can disagree on such matters, what is not disputable is that oftentimes it is entirely legitimate to restrict people's freedom in pursuit of the public interest – and that we are all much safer and better off for it.

While most conservatives will readily admit that the government is legitimate in restricting criminal behavior, they do not think it is legitimate for it to restrict the freedom of normal, law-abiding citizens. For example, they believe it's wrong for the government to use zoning laws to restrict how people use their private property, and for it to force people to wear motorcycle helmets or to prevent them from smoking in public facilities. They invoke the specter of “Big Brother” intruding into the private lives of citizens – telling us what to do in our everyday lives. But in virtually every case in which government tries to regulate the behavior of ordinary citizens, it does so for the same reason it restricts the freedom of criminals – to prevent harm and to promote the good of society as a whole. When people's actions only affect themselves, we usually could care less what they do. But when individuals’ actions begin to harm others, then we do care and we want to stop it. No one cares if you smoke in your own home; but if you do it in a public place your secondhand smoke can harm others – as has been shown by numerous studies.

Perhaps the best example of this kind of issue has been motorcycle helmet laws – which have become a lightening rod for pro-freedom/anti-government activists. For them, this is the archetypal example of government bureaucrats interfering with our right to make our own decisions about our lives. If riders want to increase their chances of dying in a crash, that’s their own business – the government should mind its own business. But the problem here is not so much the preventable deaths of these riders. The problem is that often they don’t die. Motorcycle riders without helmets typically experience more frequent and more severe head injuries in accidents, which can often mean prolonged and expensive stays in hospitals and nursing homes. And this doesn’t just affect them; it affects all us in terms of higher insurance costs, and increased government health care expenditures. For example, before enacting its universal helmet law in 1991, California’s state medical program paid out $40 million for treatment of motorcycle-related head injuries. After passage of the law, that figure dropped to $24 million. Also, a National Highway Traffic Administration study has shown that if all states had mandated 100% helmet usage between 1984 and 1996, the total cost savings over those 13 years would have been $4,638,173,956.8 This is money that came out of all our pockets and could have been put to better use. As Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, has observed: “Citizens must fight for every penny at the state government level and recognize the trade-offs where they exist. In the case of motorcycle helmet laws, clearly the money spent on head injuries means that less money will be available to pay police officers or teachers.”9 And as one state senator, John Cullerton of Illinois, has concluded: “On behalf of the taxpayers I represent, I must ask: Is it worth spending these millions of dollars to pay for the wind in the hair of motorcyclists? My answer is No.”10 And yet in spite of the large public costs being imposed on taxpayers by the absence of these laws, the Republican Congress repealed federal incentives to the states to adopt these laws in 1995. As a result of this action and the growing power of conservatives in state legislatures, more states have been repealing and weakening their helmet laws, and now only 20 states have laws that cover all riders. We are all worse off for this.

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