You Can't Legislate Goodwill

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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 Diana, Princess of Wales quickly prompted calls for new 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 forothers to adopt them, since the paparazzi allegedly photographed Diana instead of helping her in that Parisian tunnel.

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But before sympathy for Diana clouds our judgement we should recall that the American philosophy of jurisprudence doesn't 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 and 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, it's not enforcable by government.

In the US, people typically help accident victims, not because the law forces them to, but because they're motivated by goodwill. In a free society, where people don't look to government to take care of them, goodwill is the rule, not the exception. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at how active people were with their neighbors. Americans, he 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 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 do for themselves.

People might find Good Samaritan laws reasonable because they believe people of good will should help others in distress. But where individual rights are respected and government power is limited, good will cannot be enshrined in the law. It would 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 doesn't demonstrate the need for new laws.

Existing criminal law already makes it illegal for someone to harass and chase another car. The laws against trespass and breaking and entering prohibit photographers from entering a homeowner's property without permission.

Things become more ambiguous on public property such as sidewalks and streets. 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 - in reality, 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's 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.

* Sheldon Richman is vice president of policy affairs for the libertarian Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va.

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