Thursday, December 07, 2006

Another Virtue of Liberty

by Tibor R. Machan

When men and women are free to make mistakes or act from ignorance, they are also free to correct themselves promptly. This is one reason why involving government in such policies as banning trans fats or mandating the use of helmets by bicycle riders is a bad idea. The trans fats policy was just cast into stone in New York City—as of the summer of 2008, no eating establishment may cook with the stuff. And the ban on going without a helmet while riding bikes on public roads is nearly ubiquitous now in America and quite a few other countries.

The bureaucrats and politicians who run the nanny state are, of course, convinced that they are our saviors, even as many of the regulatory agencies are captured by the industries being regulated and serve, in consequence, to promote industry interests. But never mind that part of the problem. Another is that often the policy deemed to be so helpful—such as forcing us to wear seat belts or to use helmets—turns out to have very bad unintended consequences.

A traffic psychologist at the University of Bath, in the UK, Dr. Ian Walker, has conducted research on the impact of the bike helmet ban and found that "motorists passed, on average, three inches closer when he was wearing his helmet [during his experiments] than otherwise." As the English weekly THE WEEK reported in its September 23, 2006, issue, Dr. Walker "also found [vehicles] gave him more room when we wore a wig (to resemble a woman), and when he kept close to the kerb (undermining the normal advice that cyclists should drive in the middle of the road)." As Dr. Walker noted, "By leaving cyclists less room, drivers reduce the safety margin that cyclists need to deal with obstacles in the road, such as drain covers and potholes, as well as the margin for error in their own judgments."

Of course, people who research these matters can make mistakes whether they work with, or independently of, the government. However, once their advice is cast into law, abolishing the law is generally very difficult. Just ask yourself how often you hear about such laws being revoked? The most widely known example in the USA is prohibition and even that hasn't been completely overturned—some states still have various remnants of the ban that became a constitutional law back in 1920 and then was repealed in 1933. Although the ban of trans fats is for now confined to New York City, at least as far as I have been able to determine, the ban on going without helmets is much more widespread and there are numerous initiatives by politicians and bureaucrats to spread the other ban as well.

One need not dispute the wisdom of the advice to stop using trans fats or to use bike helmets, even if it is true that these measures may in time prove to be counterproductive. We are not required to be omniscient in order to take actions, to make policies. Human beings often need to act without perfect knowledge which is, in fact, an impossible ideal. Knowledge is always contextual, based on the currently available information and research. Demanding that governments be omniscient is also quite silly.

What is not silly, however, is to demand that government stay away from enacting laws about matters of safety and prudence since laws are usually left in place to kingdom come! Somehow there is a far greater proclivity to make than to repeals laws—Dr. Walker might give that topic a bit of study! Arguably, if there were no legal ban on bike helmets, the mistaken idea that they are a great help to bikers, that they are safer overall then going without them, at least in areas where there is a lot of vehicular traffic, adjustments could be made rapidly, with impunity. But given that there are all these legal bans on going without bike helmets, that there are bureaucracies that have a stake in continuing the bans, that jobs would be lost if the bans were discontinued, etc., it is very likely that the mistake will remain in force and who knows how many bikers will sustain serious injuries from doing what the law requires, namely, wearing protective helmets as they use the roads.

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