Wednesday, September 15, 2004

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.

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