What role should the government play in keeping people safe? – February 2021
Article 1 Sec. 1 of the Wyoming Constitution says that, “All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their peace, safety and happiness.”
The idea that one of government’s main roles is to provide for the safety of its citizens is why we have police forces and laws against physically harming another person. While these types of laws, i.e., preventing one person from harming another, have been well accepted for centuries some of the current laws are facing more scrutiny.
As people began settling in larger and larger communities the concept of safety was expanded. Those expansions have included issues like standards for building houses, requirements for government to provide clean water to its citizens, and after automobiles became ubiquitous came the necessity for speed limits and driver qualifications. Volunteer fire departments gave way to full time fire departments and traffic laws were established which, in the United States at least, required vehicles to not run over pedestrians.
The concept of what role government should play in keeping people safe has expanded from those of even 50 years ago. Laws and regulations have been adopted which utilize the concept of safety as the fundamental reason for the law or regulation.
Pesticide regulations were established for a person’s safety. Automobile standards have been developed which added costly automobile features because of safety. Most farmers and ranchers have vehicles sans padded dashboards and fuel tanks nestled behind the seats which were common 50 years ago. Now dashboards are made of softer materials, seat belts are required and cars utilizing air bag technology are standard.
In Wyoming there have been attempts to make it a primary offense for drivers to not wear a seatbelt. In any debate there are studies and statistics which seatbelt proponents say show the need for such a law. Opponents of such laws will agree that seatbelts may indeed provide protection, but they also argue that instituting such a law is government overreach. A few years ago, the Wyoming Legislature adopted a law making it illegal to text and drive and some municipalities have adopted ordinances banning cell phones while driving.
These arguments are not new, nor will they go away, but one theme seems to be occurring with these laws and regulations. As society requires a government entity to move into the protection role, citizens seem to reduce their ability, or need, to think for themselves.
We have warning labels on ladders telling us to be careful. We have warning labels on coffee telling us it’s hot. Meanwhile we have people who have stopped recognizing dangers if they don’t see some type of warning sign.
What the long-term implication will be seems to be a society which stops thinking for themselves and defaults that process to some agency. In a downward spiral, people will do dumb things which will then result in another rule or regulation, which will then result in people using less common sense. Anytime we seek to pass a law or a regulation to protect someone from a self-evident ill we risk creating more and more people who stop thinking for themselves.
By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President