Back in the dark ages when mandatory seat belt use was relatively new in Indiana, I had a colleague who liked to say that she never nagged people about buckling up when they were riding with her. In fact, she never mentioned it to her passengers.
“Why?” she was inevitably asked.
“Natural selection” was her answer.
I like to use that story as a good analogy for what I consider proper government. She gives people the information needed to make good choices, sometimes offers incentives for making good choices and can even provide the mechanisms to make good choices easier. But if people insist on making poor choices anyway, well, that’s on them.
Of course, our government driver (to continue the analogy) seldom stops when she should. She employs various coercive tactics to get those passengers in line. (Yes, I am being deliberate in the choice of pronoun; we’re talking about the nanny state, after all.)
Such as, buckle up or this car isn’t moving. Or, if you don’t buckle up, I will harangue you mercilessly for the whole trip. Or, the penalty for not buckling up, payable at the end of the journey, will be a hefty fee that I will send collectors out to get from your children’s children into the 10th generation.
In my experience, people who advocate for government solutions, and even bigger and more expensive government when those solutions fail to materialize, seldom have to justify themselves. They are merely following the spirit of the age, no explanations required.
But those of us who advocate government restraint or, heaven forbid, limited government, are always put on the defensive. We are either insensitive to human misery to the point of heartlessness or hopelessly ignorant of the need for immediate action to avert imminent disaster.
In all the response I get to these columns (thank you very much), by far the most common form of criticism is from readers who misinterpret, either carelessly or deliberately, the libertarian thrust of my government critiques.
I always mean, in those pieces, “the least government necessary,” which, believe it or not, was a founding principle of this country. They always insist I really meant, “no government at all,” then proceed to deliver the “Gotcha!” they think I deserve.
What about the fire department when your house is burning down, they will ask, or the police department when you’re robbed? What about that pothole you want filled in?
Aren’t those all socialism, you self-serving hypocrite?
Actually, no, they’re not. They are legitimate government functions.
My favorite “Gotcha!” — showing up in my email with tiresome regularity — is, “So, I guess you’ve refused your Social Security payments, huh?”
No, I have not. Had I the opportunity to opt out and use the money for my own retirement investments, I would have done so. But participation was mandatory. To whom am I trying to prove what if I don’t take money out of the system I was forced to put money into?
The tenet of libertarianism people seem to have the most trouble grasping, though it\really should be the easiest, is that government legitimately tries to keep us from hurting each other but risks overstepping its bounds when it tries to keep us from hurting\ourselves. Autonomy should be sacred.
So, I find myself having to explain that, no, I do not object to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s proposal to ban Hoosier motorists from using their cell phones while driving unless\they’re hands-free.
There are rules for the road that are open to challenge on libertarian grounds. There is no reason to require me to use seat belts when driving or wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle except to keep me from behaving stupidly.
But there are also rules that protect me from others’ stupid behavior, such as the one against driving while drunk.
Mandating hands-free-only cell phone use falls into the latter category. I am the one you might run into while you’re fiddling with that stupid phone.
Of course, there are a couple of potholes in the road an earnest libertarian should be aware of whenever he gives in and acknowledges that, yes, OK, fine, government should do this.
One is the maxim that by the time government acts, government action is usually beside the point. Most cellphones today have Bluetooth, and most new cars have systems that sync to it, so it’s likely that the moment you get behind the wheel your phone automatically become hands-free.
The other is that when government is given the legitimate inch, it will go the illegitimate mile. Setting reasonable speed limits is a legitimate function, but it requires local knowledge of local conditions. But few were shocked to see a national 55 mph limit that, for a time, was the most ignored law in America.
If Holcomb gets his way with cellphones, all sorts of distracted driving will be on the endangered list, everything from playing the radio to scarfing down those fries you got from the drive-through. Then don’t be surprised if there are hefty fines for talking to your in-car companions and there are calls for hands-free nose-picking.
Government will always — always, always, always — go too far.
I know you might not believe that. But the evidence is plentiful — if you choose to ignore it, that’s on you.
I respect your autonomy.
And, you know. Natural selection.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.