- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Imagine you’re having a backyard barbeque. A cop walks in and announces, “This is a random health and safety check to see whether you’ve removed the skin from the chicken before you served it.” Though delicious, we all know chicken skin contains considerable unhealthy fat. If you’re caught serving chicken skin, the cop gets your ID and issues you a $50 ticket.

If something like this were to occur, most Americans — I hope — would see such an action as ludicrous, offensive and a gross violation of our liberties. But not so fast. Let’s think about it. Each year, obesity claims the lives of 300,000 Americans and adds more than $100 billion to health-care costs. Doesn’t that give government the right to dictate what we eat? If you’re the least offended by the notion of government dictating our diets, pray tell me how it differs in principle from seat-belt laws and especially the new federal enforcement program called “Click It or Ticket.”

Under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century, the federal government is spending $500 million to aggressively enforce seat-belt laws. According to a July Consumers Research article written by Eric Peters titled “The federal government wants you to buckle up,” about 11,000 law enforcement agencies across the country have set up random checkpoints and have issued hundreds of thousands of tickets to unbelted drivers and passengers.

Just as in my barbeque scenario, their justification is our health and safety. After all, the 2002 highway death toll was 42,815 and, according to a U.S. Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study, “The Economic Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes on America’s Roadways,” seat-belt usage could have prevented an estimated 9,200 fatalities.

“Click It or Ticket” represents another bold step along the road to serfdom. History knows of no totalitarianism agenda where noble goals weren’t used as justification. Nazis used “for the good of the German Volk” and the Soviets used “for the good of the proletariat” as their justification. Health and safety have become the American justification for attacks on liberty.

In a free society, each person owns himself. As such, he has the broad discretion to make his own choices regardless of what others think of the wisdom of his choices. He has the right to take chances with his own health and safety. However, if an American doesn’t own himself, and it’s Congress that owns him, he doesn’t have those rights. Thus, the “Click It or Ticket” program is simply Congress’ way of caring for its property, the American people.

Whether seat-belt usage is a good idea is beside the point, for daily exercise, nutritious meals, eight hours sleep, and cultural and intellectual enrichment might also be good ideas. The point is whether government has a right to coerce us into taking care of ourselves.

If eating what we wish is our business and not that of government, then why should we accept government’s coercing us to wear seat belts? America’s tyrants might answer, “We just haven’t gotten around to dictating diets yet.”

Some might argue, but falsely so, that the problem with people exercising their liberty to drive without seat belts, ride motorcycles without helmets or eat in unhealthy ways is that if they become injured or sick, society will be burdened with higher health-care costs. That’s not a problem of liberty but one of socialism.

There’s no liberty-based argument for forcing one person to care for the needs of another. Under socialism, one is obliged to care for another. A parent-child relationship emerges between the citizen and the government. That was not the vision of our Founders.

Walter Williams is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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