Extremist libertarianism

Published 10:25 am Saturday, June 12, 2010

I get the libertarian philosophy. I appreciate its core principle. The less that government interferes in the lives of people, the fewer the obstacles to the Declaration of Independence’s promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Like many political philosophies, however, libertarianism can be carried too far.

Take, for example, the Virginia General Assembly’s steadfast refusal to adopt common-sense legislation that would require children in boats on inland waters to wear life preservers.

Federal law requires the same in coastal waters, enforced by the Coast Guard.

The bill to extend the requirement to inland waters gets introduced every year in the General Assembly, and every year it gets shot down — much to the chagrin of Blackwater-Nottoway Riverkeeper Jeff Turner, who knows first-hand the need for such a law.

“I see so many dangerous things involving kids and boating on the rivers,” he said. “And though this law will not stop those dangerous practices, at least the irresponsible parents would have to have (personal flotation devices) on the kids.”

State Sen. Fred Quayle, R-Suffolk, agrees. He ushered the bill through the Senate during the most recent regular session and got it passed by a 30-10 vote.

It hit a brick wall in the House after narrowly passing the Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources.

Delegate Albert Pollard, R-Lively, gutted Quayle’s bill with an amendment, after which it was referred to the House Militia Police, Police and Public Safety, where it died. Again.

Turner said he tried to contact Pollard for an explanation but got no response.

I too tried to reach Pollard, whose assistant said she’d give him the message. I haven’t heard back, but the assistant did send me some commentary Pollard wrote in February explaining his position.

His reasoning would make a strict libertarian proud.

“This bill is a ‘nanny-istic’ attempt to replace the common sense of a parent with the collective wisdom of the legislature,” Pollard wrote. He went on to question the potential inconsistency of requiring kids to wear life jackets in boats but not on piers and docks and not when playing in the shallow surf at Virginia Beach.

It saddens me to say, but Pollard has too much faith in the common sense of parents. Most have it. A lot don’t. We read almost daily in the news of parental neglect that results in the death or injury of a child.

If an adult chooses not to wear a life jacket — or a seat belt or a motorcycle helmet — that’s one thing. He is old enough to weigh the risks and make a decision. It’s his life. An 8-year-old kid isn’t equipped to make that decision. When a reckless parent doesn’t see fit to take a simple step that will save a kid from drowning, I have no problem with the state saying he must.

Libertarian instincts aside, I disagree with Pollard. The collective wisdom of society does occasionally trump the not-so-common sense of an individual. In such cases, there oughta be a law.