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25 March 2009

Why I am not a liberal

The sudden and sad death of actress Natasha Richardson in a skiing accident was certain to raise cries from the usual tsk-tskers for mandatory helmets on the slopes. In fact, the calls for a new nanny-state measure to protect us from ourselves began before it was even certain that the cause of death was the accident, which happened at least an hour, possibly hours, earlier. Ms. Richardson initially refused treatment which might have saved her.

I grew up in Massachusetts. Ski country was a couple hours away, and many of my more affluent and athletic friends hit the slope regularly. One broke his leg. Many of the others wound up with permanent knee problems. My parents bought me a cheap set of skis for Christmas, but no way were they going to drive to the mountains: too expensive, too inconvenient, and too cold. As a grownup, when I realized how many of my adult friends had artificial knees thanks to skiing, I was glad my parents hadn’t pushed it.

So, there’s no question that skiing is dangerous—to the knees. Deaths, though, seem to be rare enough that they make national news even when the victim is not a film star.

Skiing, like mountain climbing, like riding a motorcycle, like equitation, is something people choose to do knowing it’s risky. Maybe helmets are a good idea. Mandating helmets for consenting adults is the sort of nanny-state solution to a problem-of-the-month that liberals usually want to impose, like Mayor Bloomberg banning trans-fats in New York.

The counterargument is familiar. If even one life can be saved by mandating helmets for skiers, wouldn’t that be worth it?

Maybe we should just ban skiing. Think of the unnecessary knee surgeries we could prevent, some of the cost of which is borne by all of us in higher insurance premiums, lost work, and public support of hospitals.

Recent “liberal” proposals have included mandatory breathalyzers and GPS systems to track fuel mileage in every new motor vehicle. If a breathalyzer saves just one life, wouldn’t it be worth imposing them on every citizen? If new taxes might help to avert global warming and prevent some Katrina down the line, wouldn’t that be worth tracking every person’s whereabouts at all times forever? As a side benefit, it might prevent child abductions (it’s always about the children!) and Alzheimer’s patients driving off to Arkansas for no reason.

While we’re at it, let’s end drug abuse by requiring each citizen to install a webcam in every room so that the DEA can monitor all of us day and night. Thank God (or Jefferson) there’s still a Bill of Rights or we’d already be there.

The conservative wants to use the power of the state to forbid contraception. The liberal wants to use it to ban pornography. The conservative wants to crack down on pot. The liberal wants to crack down on tobacco. The conservative wants cameras surveilling every public place. The liberal wants a radio ID tag surgically implanted in every chicken.

And now, in Austin (which passes for liberal when your frame of reference is Houston and Dallas) we have mandatory blood drawing during drunk-driving checks. Refuse a breathalyzer, and a judge will immediately issue a warrant by phone for a blood test on the spot. If even one life can be saved …

But the real fix for drunk driving isn’t punishment. It’s non-automotive transportation. Drunk drivng is criminal, but so is having a thriving downtown entertainment district (not to mention the city’s ubiquitous strip joints) where alcohol consumption is the main moneymaker and there’s virtually no freaking way to get around besides driving a car.

(Deep red) Houston and Dallas have succeeded in building extensive rail systems. After two decades of useless talk, (purportedly green) Austin was finally about to open its first rail line, a half-hearted system that uses existing track to ferry people between a distant suburb and downtown. Then it was delayed indefinitely due to seeming incompetence on the city’s part.

The city’s long-standing hostility to public transportation—fueled by an oil industry that has used its clout in the legislature to make Austin a showplace of how to make people waste as much gasoline as possible—regularly produces letters to the editor complaining that the amount Capital Metro spends per rider could instead buy each customer a used car. That’s because Austin uses the Cap Metro budget for items that would be general public works in less hypocritical cities: trash cans, sidewalks, and the like.

The city of Elgin, near the village where I live, has been begging for a train route to Austin along existing tracks. It looked as if the regional authorities were interested in such a line rather than the widely opposed conversion of US 290 to a privately owned toll road. Now, as part of the stimulus, the toll road has gotten the go-ahead. Thanks a lot, Mr. President, for a truly shovel-ready project.

Texans see punishment as the answer to every social problem. Drunk driving? Cops taking blood tests! I used to think this attitude derived from the state’s ugly history as a corrupt Mexican region followed by slavocracy, a place (as they say of Russia) that has no history of democracy and therefore remains perpetually inept at it. But, let’s face it: Even liberals from states where the populace actually gets to participate in government want to use state coercion and denial of liberty to achieve social goals—it’s just that the goals are different.

Liberalism? No, thanks. I’ll admit to being a progressive, but never a liberal. Because, even if it might have saved the life of one pretty and popular actress, not wearing a helmet was her own choice. We don’t need ski police writing tickets on the slopes, or webcams trained on the slopes, or electronic devices to make sure you can’t ski without a helmet. We need forthright and realistic acceptance of risk, because citizens that seek perfect safety at all times—not just chosen for themselves, but enforced by the law on all other citizens—gradually turn into weaklings and cowards that won’t have the chops to face a real emergency. And that’s dangerous.

Turn over another new leaf:
9 March 2009
Conservative Claims vs. Reality

Right-wing talking points that don’t walk the talk

Recent toon:
Deal or No Deal?

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