Typical. Something good comes along, and the government tries to destroy it. It’s a veritable cycle, affecting every good thing, and recently, that thing has been the iPod.

First, the French government makes a law prohibiting Apple from selling iPods with an output of greater than 100 decibels to protect its citizens from hearing loss. (Although Apple has complied with this law with the result that all iPods sold in Europe are quieter than the ones sold in the United States, many third parties have created ways of hacking European iPods so that they will allow European iPod users to blast their brains out if they so desire.)

Then, European governments decide to make iTunes illegal in its present form, because they don’t like the idea of Apple having a monopoly. See here for my response to that.

Now, New York Senator Carl Kruger has proposed to ban the use of gadgets on city streets, in response to a phenomenon he calls “iPod oblivion,” in which people have gotten killed while walking, listening to their iPods and crossing in front of traffic simultaneously. Under Kruger’s law, any pedestrians caught using any kind of electronic device while crossing a street would be hit with a court summons and a $100 fine. Kruger cites the cases of at least three pedestrians who have been killed and another who was critically injured while crossing the street listening to music.

His law, therefore, has the potential to save lives. It’s a law that could prevent the needless injuries or deaths of perhaps a few people per year by removing unnecessary distractions from the city traffic.

Of those who agree with me on that point, there are two positions of response. The first is to support each measure of law that has the capacity to save lives, regardless of the cost to freedom. The second is to reject each measure of law that infringes upon individual liberty, regardless of the reasons offered by its supporters. Note that the first sounds very noble and virtuous: it’s easy to agree with a proposal that will actually save lives. The freedom to listen to an iPod on the street sounds patently expendable in comparison.

But civilised societies are based on principles, which in turn are based on inviolable rights, or – to use the words of the U.S. Constitution – ‘inalienable’ rights. The reason a government should never infringe upon those rights is because, by definition, the government is not entitled to do so. A ‘right’ inherently entails the provision that it cannot be violated. In addition, on a practical level, a good reason a government should not violate such freedoms is that it is inevitable that more and more of them will be violated as a result.

Thankfully, New Yorkers seem to have noticed.

Angry comments on many blogs with regard to this story suggest that people are less than impressed with the intrusive nature of the proposal: “Perhaps we should ban deaf and blind people from public streets, as well, just in case. Who will protect us from the lawmakers?” and “First there were bans on yakking while driving; then it was yakking while bicycling. So it’s only logical that they’d go after yakking while walking…” and “If I choose to, I will listen to my iPod when I want to, without some petty government bureaucrat meddling in my affairs…” and “If I get run over by a car because I’m preoccupied with my tunes, Spanish lessons, etc., it’s my own fault. I don’t need to legislate every aspect of my life…” and “If electronic gadgets are banned, what is next?”

Once the legislative door is opened to the idea of making laws to support arbitrary ways by which we could ‘save lives’, a torrent of garbage enters the process. Sometimes it’s simply a case of consulting common sense to figure out that a law is ridiculous. A guy who gets hit by a bus while listening to an iPod is simply the modern equivalent of the guy who used to get hit by a bus while listening to a Discman, and before that while listening to a Walkman, and before that while reading the newspaper. I’d venture to guess that there are still several people who die each year reading the newspaper, but Kruger doesn’t seem keen to ban that particular activity.

This illustrates perfectly the reason for principles based on rights. That Kruger can dream up silly new laws is not surprising; there’ll always be lawmakers like him. That our system of government can and should prevent his silly new laws from becoming reality on the basis that they infringe on individual liberty is what stories like this exemplify so thoroughly. This, of course, follows the ban on trans fat in the Big Apple; New York is becoming a bloody socialist republic.

Finally, I’d like to suggest that the process by which someone dies walking out in front of oncoming traffic while immersed in some sublime rhythm on their iPod already has a name: natural selection. Why anyone would support a law that has the potential to circumvent the helpful removal of certain kinds of people from the human genome, is beyond me.

Stupidity has always been with us. Legislation has no power to get rid of it. But maybe New York buses can help.

John Wright