Just because it’s good for you….(or: What do swine flu, light bulbs, and bicycle helmets have in common?)
September 29, 2009
Though you’d never know it to look at me now, I used to be an avid bicyclist. Since I’m not very fast on a bike, rather than time trials and speed cycling, I concentrated on distance cycling in the 90’s, and completed four centuries in a 26-month timeframe then. In 1990, a bill introduced into the Maryland state legislature by a delegate from Anne Arundel County proposed to ban bicycle helmets.
Let me let you read that statement again and let it sink in: He wanted to ban bicycle helmets.
His rationale? We cyclists can’t hear sirens and other traffic noise.
If you bike, you know that a helmet is your first and sometimes only line of defense against asshole motorists and other bike dangers. As I was hit by a car while biking in 1995, and absorbed the brunt of the impact mainly with my face, I know firsthand the protection bike helmets provide. This jerk wanted to take my only protection away. And yes, we can hear road noise just fine.
This was my first “libertarian moment.” Here is a legislator who is both stupid and powerful. As anyone who lived through the George W. Bush regime administration knows, that’s a dangerous combination.
One of the reasons I left the Democratic Party for the Libertarian Party, and a libertarian point of view in general, is that I saw an increasing reliance by progressives, liberals, Democrats, the left wing, whatever you want to call them, on government to enforce beneficial behavior. If something’s good for you, pass a law requiring it. If something’s bad for you, pass a law banning it. The latest salvo in this assault on our personal liberties comes to me courtesy of CNN here at UM Hospital, where I’ve been for the past 7 1/2 hours awaiting the outcome of my mother’s brain tumor surgery. (Turns out the channel changer’s locked, so I can’t escape to ESPN.) They’ve carried a news bite about the recent requirement for health care employees of New York state government to be vaccinated against the H1N1 virus (related story here: http://www.newsday.com/long-island/mandatory-flu-vaccination-splits-workers-1.1481242?print=true). Today, a rally against the proposed legislation took place on the steps of the state house in Albany. CNN found a couple of picketers to interview who, honestly, weren’t very articulate. Or, in my cynicism, I suspect their tape editors cut out the good stuff and made those two picketers sound like morons. It’s too bad, because they had a point. Related stories point out the risk of being exposed to impure vaccines or getting sick (or even dying) from the vaccine itself, as some people do.
Getting the vaccine is probably a good thing. The protesters weren’t protesting the vaccination, just the government requirement. Skip the vaccine, lose your job. It was that simple.
Suppose all the states adopted this same requirement. And suppose that the requirement extended to all state employees, not just those with health care-related jobs. There simply wouldn’t be enough vaccine to go around. There is a promise by Kathleen Sebelius that there will be about 75.3 million doses available to the public, which should carry us through the end of December ( http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/07/09/obama.swine.flu/index.html?iref=newssearch ). She doesn’t have the power to promise that. Besides like being a promise that it will snow on Christmas, who is to say that that will be enough? Making everyone get the vaccine is a sure way to increase demand artificially without increasing supply. And the vaccine production process can’t be sped up. (Most vaccines are grown on a chicken-egg medium, which means that the rate-limiting step is how fast chickens can lay eggs. No government can speed that process up.)
Another danger of making something good a government mandate is that we can’t always predict what will happen in the future. Consider, for example, this description of a drug from the 19th century: “… dull(s) pain, strengthen(s)the pulse, calm(s) nervousness and help(s) the body heal.” Not only did it do all that, wrote a New England doc in the 1870s, “it invariably contributes to the mental cheerfulness.” Sounds good, right? Suppose such a drug were mandated by the government to be required therapy for everyone?
We’d have a nation of addicts, because that drug was cocaine. A similar pronouncement was made by late 19th- and early-20th-century doctors of heroin, with the result that thousands of people really did become addicts.
Never mind the religious objections people may have to government-mandated therapies of any kind. Those are too numerous to mention here. What if we just find out later that what the government made us do umpty-ump years ago is bad now? What do we do then?
Another example of this bizarre behavior is occurring now in the state of California. In 2007, California passed a law banning incandescent light bulbs, with a five-year phase-in. Just banned ’em. ALL houses and places of business in California are now required to use CFLs. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6316635.stm, among others). Sounds good on the surface, right? CFLs use less electricity and emit less heat than the Edison invention. Using less electricity means less greenhouse gas emission by power plants. All good, right?
A typical CFL manufactured for consumer use contains about 3-5 mg of mercury. Imagine ten or more years from now, when spent CFLs need to be disposed. That mercury goes right back into the biosphere. (Not to mention the millions of incandescent bulbs that suddenly need to be disposed of because they’re now illegal in California. The glass, perhaps, is recycleable. But the rest of the bulb’s anatomy is not.) If all the CFLs in the US were dumped, it would contribute about 104 tons of mercury to the biosphere. And what did the EPA recommend? Double-bagging the bulbs before disposal. I am not shitting you. (http://www.epa.gov/mercury/spills/index.htm#flourescent, and yes, the government spelled “fluorescent” wrong) Someone pointed out that a plastic bag was a piss-poor idea, since plastic could still allow mercury vapor to leach out. I’m saying plastic bags are a piss-poor idea because—hello? McFly?!—plastic bags are made with petroleum derivatives! So much for protecting the environment.
I have a better idea: how about if we decide what’s good for us, and buy and use accordingly?
By the way, although this number is a bit out of date, the site http://www.swinefludeathtoll.com/ puts the total death count from swine flu at 1,154 as of this May…less than 1% of all diagnosed cases worldwide. Not exactly a cause for alarm. And certainly no reason to mandate getting vaccinated.