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Good Samaritan Laws Are a Bad Idea

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Tragedy often spawns new, ill-conceived laws. A good rule of thumb would be to avoid new legislation that is inspired by incidents involving the death or injury of beloved people. Despite good intentions, such laws will turn out to be mistakes. Legislate in haste, repent in leisure.

The death of Princess Diana quickly prompted calls for new laws, specifically Good Samaritan laws and restrictions on the activities of celebrity photographers. Both ideas should be rejected.

Good Samaritan laws require private citizens to help victims of accidents. Some states already have these laws, and there is a push for the other states to adopt them, since the paparazzi allegedly photographed Diana instead of helping her in that tunnel under the Seine in Paris.

But before sympathy for Diana clouds our judgment, we should recall that the American philosophy of jurisprudence does not permit the government to impose positive obligations on citizens. America was founded on a bedrock of inalienable individual rights. Under that theory, each person is the owner of his life. As such, he has no positive legal obligations to others that are enforceable by government except those that are voluntarily accepted. All that government can require of you is that you abstain from violating the rights of others by subjecting them to force or fraud. Thus, even if you believe that morality requires you to help an accident victim, that requirement is not enforceable by government. A theory of individual rights could have no other outcome.

In the United States, people typically help accident victims, not because the law forces them to, but because they are motivated by goodwill. In a free society, where people do not look to government to take care of them, goodwill is the rule, not the exception. In the early days of the republic, Alexis de Tocqueville visited from France and marveled at how active people were with their neighbors. Americans, Tocqueville said, had associations for every conceivable purpose. No law forced them to participate. They did it because they wanted to be involved with their communities and wanted to have a place to turn to when they were in distress. They didn’t look to government to do what they thought they should be doing for themselves.

People might find Good Samaritan laws reasonable because they believe people of goodwill should help others in distress. But where individual rights are respected and government power is limited, goodwill cannot be enshrined in the law. To do so is to undermine freedom.

The limits being proposed on the paparazzi are as wrongheaded as the Good Samaritan laws. Even the worst case imagined in the Paris accident does not demonstrate the need for new laws in the United States (or France). Existing criminal law already makes it illegal for someone to harass and chase another car at high speed while igniting flash bulbs in the driver’s eyes. The law against trespass prohibits photographers from entering a homeowner’s property without permission in order to shoot photographs or do anything else. There are already laws against breaking and entering.

Things become more ambiguous on so-called public property such as sidewalks and streets. The solution is not a law governing the distance between photographers and celebrities; such rules would inevitably be used to interfere with the proper activities of the news media and others. Property that is maintained by the taxpayers is theoretically owned by everyone, photographers included. Once the government begins to regulate what photographers may do on “public property,” the floodgates will open to the regulation of other peaceful conduct.

Much of the problem is “public property” itself, which in reality is government property. The government controls much more land than it needs to carry out its few functions appropriate in a free society. Privatization of government property would enable us to handle tricky problems, such as when photography becomes harassment, through the creative device of contract between property owners and guests. That would be far preferable to a solution that would only increase the power of government to harass peaceful citizens, a power it should not possess even in small quantities.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.