Commentary

The Nanny State Strikes Again

By William A. Niskanen
This article originally appeared on FoxNews.com on December 26, 2003.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who must have little else to do, has recently urged state governments to pass “primary” seat-belt laws, which allow police to stop and cite motorists solely for failing to wear a seat belt.

And the Bush administration has proposed a $400 million incentive to reward state governments that pass such laws.

These proposals represent a continued confusion of what is individually wise with what ought to be politically required. I always wear a seat belt because it is among the most effective means, short of not driving, to protect my own safety. The issue is whether that is a sufficient basis for requiring others to follow my example. I suggest not, because there is no benefit to me from other drivers also wearing a seat belt. I may be even safer if other drivers do not wear a seat belt, because their perception of increased safety may lead them to drive more aggressively.

The estimates of the potential reduction in traffic fatalities and related costs from mandatory seat belt laws may be correct but are irrelevant; a reduction of the speed limit to 10 m.p.h., for example, would lead to an even larger reduction in traffic fatalities.

There must be more important things for police to do than to monitor seat belt usage. Surely, there must be more important uses of $400 million than to bribe state governments to pass such laws. New Hampshire is now the only state that has no seat-belt law; voters in New Hampshire would be well served by asking the gaggle of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination about their views on this issue.

The more disturbing observation is that mandating seat belt use is only one of an increasing number of cases in which politicians have confused wide-spread personal behavior with a public health problem. Smoking and over-eating are also dangerous to one’s personal health but with little or no cost to other parties. Do we really want the type and level of government intrusion that would be necessary to monitor and enforce a political standard affecting routine decisions on such matters as driving, smoking, and eating—matters that with good information we should decide by ourselves?

Good research on the effects of personal behavior and succinct, accurate information about such research can be valuable to all of us, but it is not a sufficient basis for a political decision that would set legal limits on such behavior. People should have the right to make their own mistakes about behavior that has no significant negative effects on the rest of us.

Our government, maybe even Secretary Mineta, has important tasks to perform. But the popular support for the conduct of such tasks is undermined by the proliferation of mandates about our personal behavior.

William A. Niskanen is chairman of the Cato Institute and was a senior economic adviser to President Reagan.