Friday, April 16, 2004

Nanny State

In the comments to the post below, Pie brings up a point about "the government... sav(ing) me from myself" with respect to seatbelt laws. And it is an argument made by many folks, some of whom are libertarians, as the decry the nanny state. At times it may be a fair argument to make, but there is a bit more to the picture.

Many laws that have a safety motivation are indeed designed to protect a person from herself. However, the benefit of the law runs to others as well. Imagine if you will that there is an accident and the driver of the car is not wearing her seatbelt. She suffers injuries greater than if she had been wearing a seatbelt. The cost is borne not only by the injured person, but by society. Suppose the person has to be airlifted to a hospital and requires emergency medical care and an operation. All of these resources have now been expended and are no longer available.

Perhaps the alternative use of the helicopter was to transport a donor kidney for a transplant. Or that emergency medical care may have been used by another trauma victim. For all of these resources expended there is another person or persons who have thus been denied use of these resources. Additionally if the injured person is not insured, then society directly bears the cost of treatment. Either way, there is a genuine cost to society for these injuries suffered as a result of not wearing one's seatbelt. Thus, the injury is to society as well as to the individual.

That is not to say that these societal costs (externalities) justify a strict seatbelt statute and enforcement. Rather, it is to show that there are costs and benefits that are borne by individuals not captured by the initial analysis. Just as there is a cost to society for diverting police resources to pulling over people who are violating the seatbelt law, there are also costs to society for injuries of unbelted drivers (or passengers). It is not a simple analysis focused solely on individual rights versus government power.


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