ON TUESDAY, Nov. 8, I'm going to get in my car, fasten my seat belt, drive to my polling place and strike a blow for freedom. How? By voting no on Question 2 -- voting, that is, to repeal the Legislature's compulsory seat belt law. Frankly, it would be more satisfying to repeal the overbearing nannies of the Massachusetts Legislature. But there are nearly 200 of those, and I can only vote against two.
(Actually, I can't vote against any. I am represented in the General Court, as the Legislature is formally known, by Sen. Lois Pines and Rep. John Businger, two of the 96 Democrats who are being given a free reelection pass by the Massachusetts Republican Party. Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Joe Malone had intended to recruit a few candidates for those seats, but what with the O.J. Simpson hearings and Princess Di being on Martha's Vineyard, they apparently couldn't find the time.)
First things first: I have nothing against seat belts. They are a sensible personal safety measure. I wear one every time I drive. I make sure my passengers do, too.
But Question 2 isn't a referendum on safety: It's a referendum on liberty. Repealing the seat belt mandate won't mean that drivers should stop buckling up. It will mean that voters are tired of buckling under.
And it will mean something else: that voters need a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t. For what Question 2 really asks is whether the Legislature can treat voters with contempt and get away with it.
When the state's first compulsory seat belt law was passed in 1985, citizens who resented being treated like children promptly mobilized to put it to a referendum. Despite being outspent 68 to 1, they prevailed. On Election Day 1986, voters repealed the law with gusto, 54-46.
That should have been the end of it. At least for a while. But just six days later, with the conceit of a politician too intoxicated by her own righteousness to let mere voters get in her way, state Rep. Barbara Gray filed a bill to revive the law. Six days!
Gray didn't prevail at once. But after she refiled her bill another seven times (and after the feds stomped in with a threat to reduce Massachusetts' share of the Federal Highway Trust Fund), the Legislature reimposed the law the people had dumped. When the governor vetoed it, he was overridden.
Think about this. Legislators ought to feel humiliated when a law is repudiated by the public. For voters to so resent a new statute that they force its repeal is the ultimate proof that lawmakers have failed to represent them. Yet rather than be chastened by the referendum result in 1986, Gray & Co. set out immediately to nullify it. "We don't care what the voters want" -- that was the attitude of the seat belt zealots. So they forced the law back on the books, and now it's back on the ballot.
Nobody objects to laws that require drivers to pass a road test, to obey speed limits, to keep their headlights in working order, to drive sober. Those restrictions are designed to protect others, to keep the public at large safe from the stupidity or ignorance or recklessness of other motorists.
But that isn't true of the compulsory seat belt law.
Drive without strapping yourself in and the only person you endanger is yourself. You don't make the roads more hazardous. You don't increase the chances of an accident. You don't put other drivers in harm's way. Not buckling up may be risky -- even stupid. Letting the government take away your freedom in order to protect you from yourself is riskier -- and stupider -- by far.
Some of Big Government's little helpers rationalize the seat belt law by arguing that all of us share the costs when somebody gets injured because he didn't buckle up. Well, then, why not a law banning fatty junk foods? After all, everyone shares the costs of a heart attack brought on by clogged arteries. Just as we all share the costs of ski slope injuries, shall we therefore ban skiing? And hunting? And football?
"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety," Benjamin Franklin said, "deserve neither liberty nor safety." He wasn't talking about seat belts, but the principle hasn't changed. Let the government dictate this aspect of your life, and next it will want to dictate that aspect. And then another. And another.
Already the government confiscates the largest part of your income, controls what you can watch on TV, decrees the curriculum your child must study, tells you what to do with your trash, decides what contraceptives you're allowed to buy, and may throw you in prison if you enlarge your house without permission. A compulsory seat belt law may be only a minor encroachment on our freedom compared with the ones we've already accepted. At least let us resist the minor encroachments.
I'm all for seat belts. I'm all for freedom. I'm voting no on Question 2.
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An update on Tuesday's column: Tony Martin, Wellesley College's tenured Jew-baiter, and Fred Leuchter, the self-titled "engineer" who says nobody was gassed at Auschwitz, have pulled out of that Holocaust-deniers' conference in California. A new missive from the conference organizers reports that "several persons who had been announced as conference speakers in the May-June journal will not be able to participate after all." Martin and Leuchter are among those listed.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)