On Navigating Mixed Systems


Over the years attending libertarian meetings I have always been a bit uneasy about folks in attendance who think being forced to wear helmets while riding motorcycles or having to wear seatbelts in cars are central libertarian issues. They are and aren't.

For starters, the real issue, one that only a few directly touch on, is whether the roads of a free society are to be public. If they ought to be, then there cannot be any serious'other than perhaps technical'objection to the public authorities imposing various standards users must abide by. Wearing helmets and seatbelts could well be perfectly sensible standards for using the roads and public authorities would be correct insisting that users comply. Even anarcho-libertarians will accept some rules for how people must comport themselves in their courts of law.

If, however, roads should not be public but private, then helmet or seatbelt rules would amount to 'terms of use' hashed out between owners and customers. At the Indianapolis or Daytona 500 auto race, there are plenty of rules the owners-organizers impose on drivers and anyone else present at the events. Disneyland and Disney World and Six Flags and Kentucky Kingdom'you name them and they've got rules galore. So if roads were privately owned and operated, motorcyclists and other vehicle users could well be required to use the very helmets and seatbelts they complain about on the current public road system.

So, it really isn't about having to wear these implements but on how having to wear them came about. If it came about with the consent of the relevant parties, nothing is amiss, if not then there is coercion and the libertarian should complain about that. In the case of those folks who like to ride bikes without using helmets, they should complain about public ownership of roads which makes the government a coercive monopolist even if, perhaps, a prudent road manager.

And there are many issues like that we all face in a mixed system, one where there are many private domains, like Disneyland, your local bowling alley, or some restaurant, as well as all too many public ones such as the roads, public forests and beaches, lakes and the like. (And there is overlap, too, as when restaurants have sections and newsstands operate on the sidewalks.) Trouble is to suggest the privatization of all these is such a wild idea to most people that it is often just as well to leave these matters to be dealt with later, if ever.

Yet it is important for all champions of liberty to realize that they face complexities in these areas. They aren't alone, of course. Young journalists working at public schools, colleges, and universities, who believe they are covered by First Amendment protections against censorship, also need to realize that they are mistaken: government run papers'and that is what such journalists work for'aren't so covered or if some court says they are, they reach that in convoluted ways. Neither are media outlets that use the electromagnetic spectrum which is 'owned' by the federal government'which is why the FCC intrudes on TV and radio programming but not on newspaper and magazine content.

These areas are all very muddy and it helps to figure out just why that's so. I had an experience a long time ago that brought it all out into the open for me. I had been chided by a famous libertarian purist for attending the University of California at Santa Barbara, a government university. He claimed I was compromising my libertarian principles. We went back and forth about the matter until I finally wrote to my critic: Why don't you send your letters to me via private helicopter instead of the USPS, which has, after all, a dastardly coercive monopoly on first class mail service. I didn't hear back from my critic for quite a while and then, later, never about this matter of how I am compromising my libertarian principles.

The way we carry on in a mixed system is often quite a craft and some may be forgiven for not having mastered it fully, given how much else they need to deal with just to carry on with ordinary life.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.