I have made it clear in previous writings that I find libertarianism to be possibly the most morally repugnant economic ideology, and also a particularly dystopian one if put into practice. My most obvious objection to it is that is presents only axiomatic evidence to vilify the actions of the state. Under pure libertarianism, aside from the enforcement of private property and possibly national defense (the “nightwatchman state”), the state has no role to play in society. More so, forcible methods of financing for said state, namely taxation, is viewed as “theft” or even as Robert Nozick argued, as forced labor. Despite this, there is a role for the state in enforcing legislation, but this too is vastly limited in scope. Nanny state laws that impede personal freedom are seen as unnecessary and morally unjust, even if they seek to prevent undesirable outcomes. The best example is the libertarian aversion to something most people would take for granted: laws that force people to wear seatbelts.
Under libertarian logic, seatbelt laws are immoral because they take away the right of a person to decide out of their own free will whether they wish to risk death on the road. This risk is hardly questionable: motorists who don’t wear seatbelts are more than twice as likely to die in a road accident than those who wear them. It seems almost common sense that a) if you’re a motorist you should wear a seatbelt and b) the state would do good in ensuring that even the people irresponsible enough not to wear a seatbelt will not risk their own death in doing so. Libertarians will have none of that, arguing in the primacy of individual freedom over anything else. There is a slippery slope logical fallacy employed here; the argument is not so much that such a law is bad per se, but that any state that is capable of creating and enforcing such a law can create and enforce more and more severe laws that encroach on freedom. Today it is seatbelts, the next logical and inevitable step is turning into Stalinist Russia*.
I don’t want to deal with any other logical or economic arguments against this as these have been done to death, but rather, a legal and a psychological one. In the legal sense, it happens that in many of these cases the person responsible for the accident is not the person who was killed by wearing a seatbelt, and there is significantly heavier criminal penalties for reckless driving that causes death than reckless driving that causes only injury. In other words, seatbelt laws don’t only protect yourself, they protect others from suffering higher (and unnecessary) costs to themselves through fines or jail time. The tradeoff is huge: putting a seatbelt on is an action that takes minimal effort and zero cost. The cost for causing another person’s death is massive. When seen from this perspective, the real “moral” beneficiary of seatbelt laws is not the irresponsible driver who failed to wear them, but the other driver whose crime went from reckless driving to manslaughter which in some cases may carry a penalty of life imprisonment. The difference in the punishment had nothing to do with his actions, but that of the driver who didn’t wear the seatbelt.
Finally, there’s the psychological argument. If the other driver is not the one to blame (or even if he or she is), there is still the trauma of having been involved in a situation that involved death. The consequences of this cannot be underestimated: there is substantial literature that shows a very high increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a serious motor vehicle accident, which consequently raise the risk of other physical and psychological harms as well as higher overall morbidity. It’s hard to argue against the idea that an accident that did not result in death would be preferable by any objective standard than one which did, and not just for the sufferer of injury/death but to anyone which experienced it. Even a bystander who was present at the scene of the crash could suffer immense psychological pain if they experienced someone’s death; for example, if they tried to assist the victim and failed to keep them alive. Seatbelt laws make any accident less traumatic not just to the victim but to all other parties. Another oft-maligned law by libertarians, crash helmets for cyclists and motorcyclists, may be even more gruesome. Do a quick google search on motorcycle accident victims to see for yourself (warning, do not do this if you’re squeamish about human brains on pavement).
In plain and simple terms, psychology matters. The emotional state of people should carry weight when deciding on the morality of actions and laws. At least it should, even to libertarians who have the same psychological wiring as any other member of humanity even if their ideology has spread like a cancer across their moral foundations. The seatbelt argument and their analogies, which so much of the intellectual contributions of Nozick, Milton Friedman, and others depend upon to make the case against the state, fails on so many grounds that one cannot do anything else but question why libertarianism has any veneer of respectability in the first place.
* No government that has enacted seatbelt laws has yet to turn their countries into a Stalinist terror state. Fact.