All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1968

The Price Is Not Right

Mr. Raley is a free-lance author, speaker, philosopher from Gadsden, Alabama.

Recently our State Legislature made it mandatory for any indi­vidual who rides a two-wheel, mo­tor-driven vehicle to wear a crash helmet. The law seems to have been received with open arms by almost everyone. I can recall no local, state, or Federal legislation within the past forty years that faced less opposition. Consensus appears to be that this law will neutralize any lack of skill or judgment and protect the irrespon­sible from his own folly, in spite of himself.

Now I am not, in any sense, op­posed to crash helmets. The large­ly hostile environment in which man attempts to survive would seem to dictate extreme caution and proper use of all available safety equipment. Personally, I would not think of riding a motor vehicle without a skid-lid. But the sad truth is the Federal government already protects me from my many inadequacies so much more lavishly than I can afford, it ap­pears doubtful that further help can be endured at this time.

There is something pathetic about man’s relationship with law — from the very dawn of history to this day. We know that civiliza­tion is built on a foundation of law. Human nature being what it is, no culture, social order, or na­tion could have emerged without certain basic laws, written or un­written. Once committed to law­making, however, no nation seems to have found a stopping place. All appear to have subscribed to the theory that if a little law is good, a great deal of law must surely be better. This theory seems to affirm that a man who could function fairly well carrying ten pounds of weight would do much better load­ed with a ton or more.

There is nothing contradictory in the proposition that a minimum of law tends to build civilization while labyrinthine laws tend to de­stroy. In fact, a society of perfect persons would have no place for law enforcement since each indi­vidual would of need be free and therefore jealous of his or her re­sponsibilities. This being true, all laws may be viewed as a burden to society inasmuch as each respon­sible individual must spend more or less time producing the wealth required to enforce them. Less than perfect men may still con­clude that laws enacted solely and unequivocally to protect society from malicious acts of irrespon­sible individuals and groups are necessary and helpful. All other laws need to be recognized as the unnecessary evil history proves them to be.

Even those laws free men have found necessary to impose upon their society can become an im­possible burden. We know that a culture must be protected from other cultures that would destroy or enslave it. But if the vast ma­jority of powers upon this earth should attack a given country sys­tematically, that nation conceiv­ably could find the price of pro­tection beyond its means. In the same vein, society as a whole must be protected from the malicious acts of its own members. But should the day arrive when a ma­jority must be restrained by force, there is no hope that the minority could, for long, pay the bill.

For the undoubted advantage of living in a sophisticated society I am willing, if not happy, to go my bit to protect that culture from its enemies, foreign or domestic. I must admit that, from time to time, society may have need for a bit of protection from some care­less act of mine. This, too, I am willing to pay for. But I absolutely cannot afford to be protected from myself. More than this, I find it nauseating to be forced to pick up the tab for killing the incentive and responsibility of other indi­viduals in the name of protecting them from the facts of life.

Certain laws calculated to pro­tect one from his own folly doubt­less have proven momentarily ad­vantageous for particular individ­uals, but the price adds up to slavery.

No culture that invokes laws to protect its members from their very own mistakes can justly claim to afford an opportunity for individual freedom; obviously, no person or group can shield another unless the defender controls the actions of its ward. No people who ask for or accept laws designed solely to protect them from them­selves can hope to earn freedom.

John Stuart Mill would surely be considered a square by this sophisticated generation, but no modern philosopher seems to have improved upon his thoughts ex­pressed in On Liberty:

That the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized commun­ity, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, be­cause it will make him happier, be­cause, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remon­strating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreat­ing him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to pro­duce evil to someone else.

In evening edition language, Mill is telling all who can hear that a free man absolutely cannot be protected from himself, either willingly or unwillingly. He as­sumes, of course, that all men of affairs will understand that this theory does not apply to legal in­fants.

To apply Mill’s thinking in Amer­ica today would mean that an in­dividual could be forced to respect the life and property of others, but no power could compel him to par­ticipate in a social security system as a condition of employment. Those who choose to shilly-shally might be reasoned with and en­couraged to be more prudent. But responsible individuals could not be forced to pick up the tab for the folly of others.

I feel strongly that individual freedom, including freedom of choice in matters where no one other than myself stands to gain or lose, is the greatest achieve­ment man may attain; I cannot compromise with any law that in­hibits that freedom. Compulsory protectionism denies freedom of choice and discourages responsible action. It lends aid and comfort to the antisocial breed from whose hostile actions society as a whole must pay to be protected. When the irresponsible element in any culture reaches an active majority, first chaos, then social reorganiza­tion must follow.

It’s not that I make no mistakes, that all my decisions are wise, or that no other person better man­ages daily affairs than I do. Nor would I attempt to deny that the animal comforts promised by cer­tain laws that enervate freedom may be found advantageous at some moment in life. The whole point I hope to make is this: Spiri­tually, psychologically, and eco­nomically, the price for protection from my own folly is much, much more than I care to pay.

  • Mr. Raley is a free-lance author, speaker, philosopher from Gadsden, Alabama.