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Sweet Land of Liberty – Some Restrictions Apply

February 9, 2007

Where I’m from, you wouldn’t put something called “Knob Creek” in your mouth unless it was for love or money. But here in the States it’s last night’s dinner, liquid dinner anyway. So perhaps the fine Kentucky bourbon is having its influence but as I stumble into my digital Guernica office today I feel the need to take up my libertarian hat, which has spent the intervening week in which I dissed God growling at all the other hats, asserting its right to be left alone.

Like a Maoist Mary Poppins, the Nanny State has been busily assaulting liberty in my current home town. Just this week New York State Senator Carl Kruger introduced legislation to ban the use of iPods, cell phones, Blackberries and other electronic devices while crossing the street. Said naughtiness would be punishable by a fine of $100. Kruger told Reuters that three of his constituents in Brooklyn have been killed since September because they stepped into traffic while distracted by such devices. “What’s happening is when they’re tuning into their iPod or Blackberry or cell phone or video game, they’re walking into speeding buses and moving automobiles.”

In the words of John Stuart Mill, too bad. Not that I’m happy that anyone should meet such an unfortunate end but people’s own stupidity can cause them all manner of injuries and misfortunes, some fatal, for which they are responsible. Being careless is a choice, one that most adults of sound mind are capable of avoiding if they want to. If we assume that they are not we might as well bundle them all in bubble wrap. Indeed the premise of the ban is self-refuting: if people are too distracted to notice that they are wading into oncoming traffic they will be too distracted to stop using whatever forbidden device is distracting them.

I want the freedom to talk on my cell phone or listen to an iPod as I cross the street. I’m confident that people are able to do either while also watching out for their safety. And again, there is a point beyond which the state’s interest in safeguarding the lives of its citizens becomes invasive, an affront to freedom. The freedom to take your life in your hands has value – it is your life after all.

Then of course there are the obligatory libertarian slippery slope and futility arguments. The ban would be essentially unenforceable, a piece of nuisance legislation that would waste the valuable time and energy of law enforcement, not to mention the time and energy of the few people unlucky enough to get ticketed. And if this ban goes forward, what’s next – a ban on pretty girls? On cute little dogs? On State Senator Kruger’s creepy resemblance to some of my portlier relatives? I would find all of these plenty distracting. But banning them would be, well, absurd. I’ll say this for Senator Kruger’s effort though: the foofaraw it has engendered will do more to make people aware of the potential for “fatal distraction” (how has the NY Post not used that one yet?) than any publicity campaign. So I suppose he’ll achieve his goal of making people safer. I just hope the bill fails.

To read other blog entries by Hasdai Westbrook or others at GUERNICA click HERE

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