Speed Limit Tyranny

Eric Peters, often featured on LewRockwell.com, has a new post up about speed limit laws that captures brilliantly the immorality of such ostensibly reasonable laws. Even ardent limited-state libertarians will defend speed limit laws on the grounds that they are imposed by local governments, as opposed to the state or federal polities. While not quarreling with the assertion that local governance is generally less harmful, I hope defenders of “limited government” can see that “local” does not necessarily equate to “limited”:

The law accommodates the least common denominator – and punishes anyone who rises above it and dares to assert it.

Punishment no longer correlates to harm done – or even plausibly threatened. It is enough merely to fail to abide by whatever collectivized, least-common-denominator edict is promulgated by the authorities. To disobey “the law.” That is all that matters.

Just like laws against intoxicated driving, laws against speeding treat the citizen as a child, unable to determine without guidance how to conduct himself in the company of others. So the state scolds him like an embarrassed mother at the grocery store. Some wise, loved, bleeding-heart bureaucrat draws a line at some number she decides no one should ever exceed, and anyone who disagrees with her judgment will have to live with it. Why? Because it is “the law.” What is the law? We are not supposed to ask; we are supposed to obey, and if we do not, we go to jail. This is apparently how adults make decisions in the 21st century in the United States of America, the freest democracy of all time.

A Montana speed limit sign that almost comes close to reasonable. (Via flickr)

Most people will object at this point, “Be reasonable. It’s not a perfect system, but without it, we would have chaos. Without speed limits, there would be teenagers racing up and down the street, and pedestrians would be in constant danger of flattening.” This is paranoia; reality shows otherwise. Motorists will drive at whatever speed they decide is safe, and artificially changing the “speed limit” does not change that. Because bureaucrats are usually sensible enough to conform their “speed limits” to however fast most drivers are already going, the harm they cause is diminished somewhat. Still, as in all other areas of human action, central planning of speed limits does not work. No matter how much the bureaucrat knows, she cannot possibly arrive at a more accurate solution than the motorists will arrive at voluntarily and organically. There is nothing “reasonable” about allowing the police to extract money from motorists for expressing different preferences or judgment than our wise bureaucrat. This is anything but reasonable; it is theft from one individual at the behest of another who has more political power. Even if it was “reasonable,” and even if central planning “worked,” speed limits would still be illegitimate. Peters explains:

As a reformed minarchist conservative, one of the last intellectual obstacles I overcame was coming to accept that any use of force prior to actual harm done is always and necessarily illegitimate – and the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. What begins as “reasonable” restrictions or prior restraint soon become anything but reasonable. And why? Because if you cannot establish definitively that an actual harm has been done – then you have opened the door to the idea of punishing people for things not actually done. Victimless “crimes.”

The essence of tyranny.

One can make an argument that harm is done by speeders, or for that matter drunk drivers, but the argument cannot hold water unless one can show that all speeders and drunk drivers cause this particular harm. If one is to defend speed limit laws, one must then show that it is just to punish all speeders or drunk drivers for the results of isolated cases. For the speed limit apologist’s claim to be legitimate, he must prove that it is just to extract some petty amount of money ($150 for the speeding cameras in Washington, D.C., or double if the violator does not pay up immediately) from every individual who exceeds a speed which a particular government official has decided is dangerous. If he cannot show that it is just for the local government to take this money for its own purposes, he must accept the conclusion that Peters has accepted: speed limit laws are tyrannical.

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