Legislating for Wisdom

The decision of legislators in Northern Ireland to vote in favour of a bill requiring cyclists to wear helmets has apparently been met warmly by medics.  It would appear that some people have raised a worry that requiring such behaviour might lead to an overall drop in health, on the grounds that people will be less likely to cycle at all if they have to wear a helmet; but I have to admit that I see that argument as implausible in all but the most marginal of cases.  Frankly, I find it hard to credit that the decision to use a bike rather than the car is quite that touch-and-go.  For myself, my decision to bike or drive in depends on the weather forecast (rainy or icy = car; most other things = bike) and what I have to carry, and it’s informed by whether I expect to go to the pub at any point (since an expectation of beer militates against driving).  Wearing a helmet is low on my list of concerns.

And yet I don’t wear a helmet.  I know that that’s unwise – but I’ve just never got around to owning one, and I know myself well enough to expect with reasonable confidence that I wouldn’t get much use out of it even if I did own one.  So there’s a significant part of me that thinks that such legislation across the rest of the UK would be a very good thing (though I wouldn’t reject more and better bike-lanes and cyclists having right of way over motor vehicles either…).  Any such law might well give me the prod I need to make me do the thing that not only do I believe I ought to do, but which I’m actually prepared to do as well.

The most obvious counterargument is that such a law would be paternalistic: that there’s something undesirable about overriding a decision not to wear a helmet, even if it’s for the rider’s own good.  But this kind of argument overlooks three important considerations.  First, it ignores the public cost of road safety.  Were the costs of putting cyclists back together again wholly private – were there no ambulances and doctors required, and no taxpayer to pay for ’em – the argument might have legs.  But they aren’t, and it doesn’t.  (pari passu, the same considerations apply to minimum alcohol prices, of course: they’re an attempt to privatise the public costs.  That’s one kind of privatisation of which I approve; and – while we’re about it – the libertarian appeal that it’s a distortion of the free-market is bunk.  It’s not obvious that we need a free market in booze; and, if we do, one in which social costs can be ignored by the consumer isn’t really a functional market anyway – in which case its freedom seems less important.  But I digress.)

The second argument, which is a bit more Aristotelian, says that there’s nothing wrong with states nudging people towards wise behaviour, because one of the things a state is supposed to do is nurture and cultivate its people.

The third is that paternalism like this is only really a curb on freedom if people have decided not to wear a helmet.  But I’m not sure that there really are many people who make that kind of positive decision to begin with.  My shopping list this weekend didn’t read “Cat litter, potatoes, NO helmets, cereal”; I’ve never decided to ride bare-headed.  And so I don’t think that there’s much of a claim about my liberty being violated by the demand that I wear a helmet.  A law, as I hinted above, might just prompt me out of my inertia.

On the other hand, I do wonder about how effective or enforceable a law would be.  I’m not going to confess to sometimes jumping red light, or riding drunk, or without lights, or drunkenly jumping red lights in the dark without lights, because all those things are illegal and I HAVE NEVER DONE THEM (got that?).  Hypothetically, though, they’re things that I’ve seen other cyclists do irrespective of the law; and its really not likely to be worth anyone’s while to do anything much about it.

But even here, I suppose that the counterpoint would be that, of course people have reasons at given times to break all kinds of laws.  That doesn’t alter the fact that, sometimes, it might be legitimate to give them an extra reason – maybe in the shape of a law, maybe in the shape of financial incentives or minimal prices – to act wisely.

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