Monday, May 09, 2005

Public Health and the Potential Threat to Freedom

Georgia has banned smoking in most public areas throughout the state. This, of course, continues a trend that looks almost unstoppable.

Clearly there is a legitimate public health motive for banning smoking. Secondhand smoke is dangerous—or at least dangerous enough to warrant concern. But we do need to ask how far we want our government going in restricting personal choice for a perceived greater good. Along with laws banning cell phone use while driving, these public safety initiatives should not be embraced without serious debate. There is a slippery slope here.

When you stop and think about it, a lot of freedoms we take for granted are potentially subject to restrictions on the basis of public health concerns. Owning a firearm could be dangerous to others. Driving with a potential health problem like heart disease could be dangerous to others. And let’s not forget that prohibition was enacted primarily as a public health initiative—after all, drinking leads to all kinds of behavior that could be dangerous to others.

Smoking bans are most often a genuinely good idea. Cell phone restrictions, much less so. But both are spawned out of a governmental desire to protect us from ourselves. That impulse, like in the case of prohibition, can be too easily subverted by an ideological objective—“public health” used as the cover for less noble causes.

Freedom requires balance. But balance is not always best achieved through governmental restrictions. Some freedoms are important enough that we should accept that they “could be dangerous to others.” That’s a risk we can sometimes afford to take to ensure our rights of personal choice remain intact.


At 5:14 PM, Blogger Joe Weedon said...

Several states require individuals with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, to have their doctors complete medical forms prior to obtaining a driver's license (as a diabetic, I'm subject to this requirement). However, I'd argue that being required to pass information related to my medical condition and history to the DMV is a gross violation of my right to privacy (not to mention a violation of federal statute). This is a very slippery slope.... one that we have already gone a long way down (Note: the DMV in Washington, D.C. is fairly incompetent prior to the addition of the extra paper work. The last time I got my license renewed it was a three day affair - no kidding).

At 11:43 PM, Anonymous cdh said...

First of all, I would like to agree with the point made in the original post. I do feel that too often in this country we are seeing cases where personal reposibility is being replaced with government regulation. The smoking bans that are becoming popular are a great example.

However, with regards to testing in order to get a driver's license, I do think that the DMV has a responsiblity to verify that a person is fit to operate an automobile before issuing a license. This means mentally and physically fit. I do not feel that having to prove that you take responsibilty to control your diabeties is any more of a violation of your rights than my having to prove that my eyesight is good enough to operate a car. Don't get me wrong, I do not like giving the gov't any more person info than it absolutely needs, but I think that in this case it does make sense.


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