Why libertarians are wrong about seatbelts (and pretty much everything else)

Nanny state laws don’t just protect the victim but everyone else too

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*.

Everybody loses

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).

Psychology matters

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.

2 thoughts on “Why libertarians are wrong about seatbelts (and pretty much everything else)

  1. Your central premise seems to be that ‘libertarian’ ideas are selfish and illogical.

    “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…”

    and then you go on to catalog all the reasons that it is sensible to wear a seat belt for logical and altruistic reasons. Unfortunately you are attacking a straw man, nobody said that it was a good idea not to wear a seat belt. They said that it was not the job of the state to enforce common sense, and the slippery slope argument you jokingly dismiss can’t be so easily ignored. Have a look at some statistics:


    If you don’t accept the counter argument that too many laws can lead to authoritarianism then you can forever point out all the great sensible things that the government can pass laws on to prevent harm… perhaps we actually needed that law to prevent ‘Creating a nuclear explosion’?

    PS My friend Jo put me onto your blog, really like it!

    • Well, I will certainly argue that libertarian ideas are selfish to the core. To quote Hitchens, “I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement [Libertarians] in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.” As for illogical, well no. Selfishness is neither illogical nor irrational, quite the contrary.

      The reasons why wearing a seat-belt is not, to me, the crux of the point I’m trying to get across. It’s that libertarianism ignores a lot of non-economic consequences for the things they promote, in this case I’m giving an example of legal and psychological consequences that their objections to seatbelts do not take into account. Beyond that, I firmly oppose any use of the slippery slope argument because it’s a logical fallacy: it implies setting causal determination from one policy to another in a way that cannot reasonably be assigned ex ante. So what if Labour set 3,700 new offenses? You need to justify each one of them to know if they were reasonable or not. Otherwise a left-winger can also argue that if the Tories cut 3,700 regulations then this was all bad. There are plenty of areas where the UK could use more regulation (banking being the obvious one… and as any Grenfeld tower survivor would point out, construction as well). There are also plenty of areas where it could use less.

      The point I’m making is libertarianism, like communism, are fundamentally axiomatic ideologies. One says less government = good, the other says more government = good. Both are equally preposterous!

      Thanks for reading (and commenting)!

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