maximizing human potential

I had a recent discussion with friends about whether bike helmet laws for children are a good or bad thing. I ended up takingth eposition that they probably do violate individual's liberty, but that it's difficult to argue with the fact that 30,000 children die each year. In formulating my position though I realized that there's a broader principle at work which I felt compelled to elaborate on. note, this is not neccessarily an endorsement of helmet laws. Its a statement of general principle, the reason I call myself a liberal, and it's a principle whose application to real-life must of course be tempered with pragmatic concerns (and the often-contradictory demands of other, equally important principles, such as the rghts of an indvidual).

But there is immense value in one human life. Not to say that the death penalty, abortion, or euthanasia should be illegal, or that we should never allow "collateral damage" in war - there are always going to be times when we must kill for the sake of defending our community or preserving our person.

A single human life is a potential revolution. A single human can change the world. Looking at all those single lives that have done, one is struck by how chance intervened to save each from having been removed from the stage well-before they ever could exert their will upon the world and our global civilization.

Sometimes that single indvidual changes the world for the better. Sometimes for evil. Sometimes they just change the direction of the world without any possible assessment of good or bad - but still profound. Examples are Pasteur, Hitler, and Alexander, respectively.

But as a liberal, I believe that it's essential that we as a society try to maximize that human potential. Doing so means that we have to start with a baseline minimum nutriition to every baby, health to every child, and education to every adult. Doing so means we have to encourage innovation and risk, by removing barriers to entrepeneurship and enterprise. Doing so means we have to ensure that no one is denied the opportunity to compete on the field by virtue of their race, religion, ethnicity... or any other superficial difference.

As a liberal, I desire a true meritocracy - where people succeed on eth basis of their effort and skill. But all people need to be given the opportunity to begin that race with the same tools as everyone else. That, society can guarantee. What you build with the tools, however, society should not guarantee (though a safety net is also needed for those who fail, so as to encourage people to take the risk and hope for success).

So, 30,000 preventable deaths of young children due to lack of bike helmets is a tragedy, far worse than 9-11. It's a human tragedy because of the immense loss of human potential. Should we infringe on liberty to mandate bike helmets? Probably not, but it's hard to argue that point on pure ideological grounds without losing some of your humanity in the process. A better solution is to argue for education of future parents in high school, so that they at least have some general knowledge of the risks. Or innovative policies like requiring by law that all bikes marketed to children under 18 come packaged with a safety helmet, or a coupon for one so the child can also find one they like and be "cool".

It's not enough to say that liberty trumps all other concerns. We have a civilization herem one built the hard way - through the toil of individuals, one at a time, a whole far greater than the sum of its parts., Each loss is a deep wound to our future. We need to retain our affinity for the human side of these issues, not just relegate them to the level of a theoretical excercise in law.

UPDATE: Several have written to point out that the annual number of deaths due to no helmets is much less than 30,000. That's useful information, though somewhat irrelevant to my larger point about the statement of principle which informs, but does not dictate (pace Araven) my view on the matter. I still think that the preventable deaths of even a few hundred children is a greater tragedy than 9-11 in terms of the unrealized human potential it subtracts from our collective future.


araven said...

Actually I think it was 3,000 deaths, not specifically children. This is exactly how these things get blown out of proportion. The original was cited without reference and this is a misquote.

Still, if your argument is that ONE death is too much, then it doesn't matter whether it's 30,000 or 3,000 out of the hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. Your argument boils down to the idea that one preventable death is sufficient reason to deprive hundreds of millions of people of a liberty if it seems like a small liberty to you.

Obviously there are a lot of people who agree with you, which is why playgrounds are so insipid now, and children today get very little exercise. Since most fun forms of exercise involve a little risk, it's no wonder we've got an alleged "obesity epidemic" on our hands.

All other arguments aside, one that I think is compelling is that there is no solid bright line on this issue. There rarely is when it comes to laws involving depriving people of self-determination. Actions that harm others give us lines as clear as they get. We usually agree pretty well that things harmful to others should be illegal. Take smoking for example. Until we learned that secondhand smoke is harmful, all the non-smokers in the world just raved about the disgusting state of most offices and public establishtments, but couldn't get anywhere dealing with the problem. Now that we know, governments all over have banned smoking in public buildings. Now that we know it harms OTHER people, we all pretty much agree that the smokers need to keep it to themselves. No such agreement about drug laws. It started out as a Nancy Reagan fad, and governments went nuts banning every substance that a person might consider experimenting with. Now there are quite a lot of people who think it's profoundly stupid to have jails full of drug users, and waste BILLIONS of needed dollars on fighting this stupid "war on drugs" when treatment and education is more effective to begin with. In other words, it's pretty hard to get Americans to come down solidly for eradicating a freedom that only hurts the individual and they tend to start seeing the light at some point.

Education, services, and persuasion are great tools to use when we'd really like to prevent people from doing things to hurt themselves. Law is a bad tool. No matter how frustrating it is when people live their lives in ways we consider stupid, and then suffer the inevitable consequences of their apparent stupidity, it is NEVER ok for us to legislate against the stupidity if it only harms that person. It's an awfully fine (some might say "nonexistent") line between "stupid" and "something I don't like."

I have plenty of other arguments...

Aziz Poonawalla said...

"Your argument boils down to the idea that one preventable death is sufficient reason to deprive hundreds of millions of people of a liberty if it seems like a small liberty to you."

not at all, Kim - read my first paragraph again. I'm laing out a general principle that informs my opinion every bit as much as the principle, "Individual Liberty". And as I explicitly said at the end of my first paragraph, "it's a principle whose application to real-life must of course be tempered with pragmatic concerns."

That sentence applies equally well to the Individual Liberty principle, by the way, as it does to the Human Potential principle. I think where you err is in taking the IL Principle as ovverridding in all cases, and then assuming I am taking the HP Principle in the same way. I can't account for your false understanding of my point, as you summarize in your comment, any other way, though I welcome being corrected on that score.

Thomas Nephew said...

I liked your comments, Aziz.

Two things: (1) focusing on children makes the liberty angle less of a factor, I think. Children are at some level and up to some age not full agents on their own behalf; hence parents and society make decisions for them. That's OK.

(2) helmets in general: it seems to me that this is or could be primarily a matter of insurance. Non-helmet wearers should pay (much) higher premiums for insurance or face severe level-of-care and/or -compensation penalties upon injury. My liberty ends where their freedom begins, but theirs ends where my pocketbook begins too, and I don't want them in my risk pool.

I realize this all tends to try to save/modify a liberty-first approach to helmets, and sidesteps your point about the potential lost by any death. I suppose I'm suggesting that in this case the conflicts between (multiple) liberties and human potential aren't as great as they may seem at first.

araven said...

Aziz, thank you for correcting the statistics.

The problem I have with your post is that while you are not coming out and stating a "what should we do about this tragedy," by suggesting that it is somehow of lesser value to consider the liberty involved than the lives involved, you create the same effect. You're treating collateral death in war (killing) as the same as the accidental death of a person from a factor totally under their control.

I'm trying to make two points. The first that liberty (in the form of self-determination and exercise of free will) is at least co-equal with life (and IMHO a far higher value, I don't think I'm alone in that evaluation..."give me liberty or..."). The second is that there is a vast distinction between death resulting from one's own actions and death resulting from the actions of another.

All death may be equally tragic, or at least tragic, as you so eloquently related. However, we can't just fling examples of death into an argument, say that it's tragic, and then refer to something that causes death. The resulting implication is that "death is tragic, any cause of death must be eliminated if possible." You certainly referred to other issues that should color our thinking. I read that to mean "start with the premise that all death is tragic and therefore we must strive to prevent all death, then moderate that view with considerations of liberty and other values."

What I'm saying is that the first premise is a misleading non-sequiter. While all death may be tragic, there is quite a bit of death that should simply be a cause for mourning, not for action. Death resulting from self-determined action (or failure to act) is tragic. People dying from preventable accidents is tragic. Tragedy is not enough. When death results from the exercise of free will, the loss of life alone should not be cause for action. The presence of an equally strong (stronger) value should preclude interference. When death results from the actions of another (killing) it probably does warrant interference. It is sufficiently important to preserve a person's life and liberty that we will interfere with another person's liberty (and perhaps life) to do so.

Starting from THAT premise, we should moderate our thinking based on the fact that children are not yet capable of entire self-determination, and recognize that society plays a role in the family which may impede parental determination in some cases. Helmet laws for children are at least worthy of discussion (though IMHO should be dismissed as draconian) In the case of an adult, however, there's really no excuse.

To put it another way, my liberty is more valuable to me than my life. Presumably anyone who buys-in to the American ethos holds those values to be at least equal. Interference with my self-determination is an assault on my liberty. The government should not be in the business of making laws interfering with my self-determination, beyond what is necessary to protect others from me. In the same way that the government should not make laws endangering my life beyond the necessity of protecting others from me. We should resist with equal vigor any law interfering with our life and health, and any interfering with our liberty.

So while I too define myself as a liberal, I see a very clear distinction, as clear as such things can be, between a tragic-preventable death that we SHOULD endeavor to prevent and a tragic-preventable death that we are morally enjoined from attempting to prevent.

There are two sorts of people who die when they fail to wear bike helmets. One sort is the person who simply doesn't think about it, is in a hurry, doesn't believe helmets matter, or forgets. The other is someone who consciously chooses not to wear a helmet in full realization that death (or worse) may result. The first MIGHT be swayed by a law, it MIGHT make him think about wearing a helmet when he otherwise wouldn't, and deaths might well be prevented. Education is also effective. Free helmets, signs, posters, warnings attached to bikes, better fad helmets, and other methods would all be likely to make the first kind of person think more about it.

The second person may well be forced by the law to do something he has chosen not to do, but in that state has lost some of his humanity. That second person has become a little bit of a slave. We have decided that his potential service to humanity is more valuable than the person himself and what makes him human. We have "conscripted" him in a way, and ordered him to sacrifice his liberty for our benefit. We are unwilling to permit that person to endanger himself when he makes a conscious decision to do so. In my opinion, stealing that second person's liberty is a form of injury that it is our moral imperative to prevent. Short of the sort of emergency which justifies true conscription of soldiers for war, we cannot justify this other sort of conscription either.

True maximization of human potential cannot be achieved absent maximization of liberty. Maximization of life is not enough.

The Comment Pimpette said...

Interesting post. I agree with Thomas Nephew in regards to the laws being in regards to children and that as adults we have to make decisions for them and sometimes that includes making laws to protect them.

A child can't win in a fight between a car and a child. It would be nice if one could just make a law that would require the child getting hit to be wearing a helmet, but that won't happen.

araven - parks may be empty, but schools are cutting gym programs as well. It is more likely that the parks are empty because we are more informed in regards to child predators than say my parents were and no longer let children out to play alone and with both parents now working - there isn't all that much time, it is about risk, but most likely a different sort of risk.