David Bertelsen
David Bertelsen

Seatbelt, Senor?

Forget the so-called "Freedom Index." If you want to measure economic freedom, yes, well maybe, just maybe, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States are the world's "libertarian paradises." That's if you measure an ideal way of life in dollars, cents and economic freedom. But to me, as a libertarian and an Objectivist, there are other important things that determine how good a place is to live in. Joy, passion, excitement. A sense of living life to the fullest. A healthy cynicism towards government, regulations, environmentalists, religion, opinion polls, vegetarians, animal rights activists, and easy-listening radio stations. All of these things are worth getting out of bed for, whereas the Capital Flows and Foreign Investment Grading Scale strikes me as a bit of a snorer.

Not to worry! To quickly gauge an individual's or country's standing on the things that matter, I've developed a wonderful new libertarian tool. Yes, I'm offering "The Seat-belt Index." Before you double over in hysterics or attack me for my non-academic, subjective approach, hear me out. With a little imagination, the seat-belt could be the single, number one guide to a country's position on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Try it — just ask your friends this question: "Should you wear a seatbelt, and why?" During the course of the ensuing discussion you can usually determine whether you're confronted with an irredeemable authoritarian, a libertarian or something in between. Let me explain ...

Personally, I wear a seat belt. If you ask me, the almost imperceptible irritation is a great trade-off for the potentially life-saving benefits. But surely that's exactly the point. It's my very own life that is at risk when I choose whether or not to "belt up." If I crash, it is me, and nobody else who faces the most major consequence of my action — death, serious injury, and other nasty stuff. What could be a simpler test of the idea proposed by Objectivism that one's own life be one's primary value? And yet to contrast this Objectivist drive for reason and liberty, the seatbelt issue provides a nice little bite. Think about it ... Even the sternest of reason-oriented Objectivists probably secretly share with me that naughty little buzz that runs through the veins when driving 100m without buckling up. High on freedom. High on life. Flourishing, and enjoying that thrill of taking a calculated risk. Oh, such a small one, but to me, extremely evocative of so many other wonderful things in life that make each day worth living for.

So, based on my own views and experiences, I think that with a generous amount of stereotyping and generalization it's possible to come up with an index country by country. And until some major international news magazine or organisation steals my idea and assigns seven academic researchers and a couple of supercomputers to the problem, let me get in first with my own, first-ever Index, based on the countries I've been lucky enough to live in: New Zealand, Germany, the United States, Japan and Spain. And all based on three criteria that I made up all by myself over a cold beer: a) Reason, b) Liberty, and c) Having a Good Time (more accurately defined by the Founding Fathers as "The Pursuit of Happiness").

In New Zealand, my impression is that a fairly typical position to the big question ("Do you wear a seatbelt, and why?") is that one should wear a seat belt because it's compulsory. To his credit, the average Kiwi is usually able to come up with some sort of rationale, if pushed. The most common one being that those who are injured in accidents run up costs which society has to pay, and so Nanny State needs to make the decision for those who don't know better. I accept, for the moment, the cost to society, and introduce the idea of privatising the health system, thereby letting people take full responsibility for their own decisions. I have yet to come across a single person prepared to consider this and so have reached the calculated conclusion that the average Joe Kiwi is only libertarian in a vaguely utilitarian, Hayekian sense. As Lindsay Perigo so ably puts it, "If there has been a revolution, it hasn't been inside people's heads." My careful calculation is that NZ gets an 8 out of 10 for Reason, a 2 for Liberty and a 5 for the Pursuit of Happiness. TOTAL: 15 out of 30.

Germans? Well, Germans are sensible. That's the good bit. Every instinct in their bones seems to force them to take the safe, conservative, and yes mind-chillingly-dull option. (Of course, there are Germans who are lively, fun, entertaining, spontaneous and life-loving why else would they invent speed-limitless Autobahns? They're just not as much fun to write about.) On the other hand, Germans must be the most genuinely, whole-heartedly altruistic people I have had the dubious pleasure of living amongst. When schools are named after Immanuel Kant you know you're in trouble, and with perhaps the exception of the Scandinavians, they would have to be the most "giving" people I know. Your life is not yours. It belongs to those who love you. And any understanding of liberty has to be an extremely bastardized one when your morality is determined by altruism, nein? So, the answer to the seatbelt question from a typical German will take one of two paths — or a combination thereof. Wear it because it's good for you (on the reason front, an admirable, life-preserving response). Or wear it, you selfish bastard, because it would be extremely inconsiderate to leave behind family and friends should you crash and kill yourself. So, I hereby award Germany 9 for Reason, a 2 for Liberty and a 1 for the Pursuit of Happiness. TOTAL: 12 out of 30.

In many ways, the USA is a beacon of light for liberty. Of course, you can count on a thousand Americans to come up with a thousand different arguments — 999 of those being different for the sake of being different. But in amongst this deliberate and accidental diversity, you hear some wonderful liberty-supporting opinions. You never know when you'll find a liberty lover, even if an inconsistent one, and that's always a treat when living in the States. I did find, however, that the "reason" thread seemed to get lost (once again, I'm generalizing and have no research whatsoever to back up my assertions!). I gave the country that was founded upon the ideals of the seatbelt index a 4 for Reason, an 8 for Liberty and a 6 for the Pursuit of Happiness. TOTAL: 18 out of 30.

Japan is refreshing in many ways. Despite what so many people have to say about the Japanese (and other Asians) being zealous followers of authoritarian leaders, I found them to be much more diverse, individualistic and fun-loving than they are often given credit for. OK, maybe I fell in with the "wrong" crowd, but once again, honoring the strict "me-bound" rules of this Index, let me make up the answers. And these really are made up, because, to be absolutely honest I never discussed this fascinating topic whilst living in Japan, and my Free Radical Research Grant fell a bit short of the plane fare for me to go there. So, for the sake of it, and based on their general traits, let me give the Land Of the Rising Sun and Rising Taxes a 7 for Reason, a 3 for Liberty and a 6 for the Pursuit of Happiness. TOTAL: 16 out of 30.

Then at last came my little libertarian surprise, and the inspiration for this magnificent new index. On all counts, Spain should rate as a nasty, nasty country for freedom lovers. Red tape, bureaucracy, Catholic morality, monarchy, history of fascism ... surely this must be hell. And yet, day after day, as I battled the rules and regulations whilst setting up a business here, I somehow, despite it all, couldn't help coming to the conclusion that this, in some way, was the most consistently libertarian country I knew! After lengthy befuddlement and furrowing of brows, one day it finally hit me as I jumped into a car with friends. Nobody buckled up! They kept talking, enjoying conversation too much to shift their focus to a mere seatbelt. We drove off. One by one, they got around to putting on their seatbelts, and in the ensuing discussion a startling realization hit me. Many Spaniards feel the same way about seatbelts that I do! And not just seatbelts, but so much more in life. They are rapidly leaving behind religion, disillusioned by an increasingly out-of-date Pope. They have a (relatively) good education system that, although state-owned, seems to emphasise the need to teach in an organized, conceptual manner, based on Western knowledge and thought. The very recent history of a fascist dictatorship is a fresh reminder that government isn't always to be trusted. And little by little, I've come to realize that although rules and regulations are burdensome, enforcement is extremely lax, and I can pretty much ignore most of them, safe in the knowledge that no squad of IRD/IRS-type investigators will be turning up on my doorstep. Like the seatbelt laws. And last, but not least, the Spanish know the value of living life to the fullest. Red wine, siestas, fiestas, "alegría," relaxing, eating: it's as though generations have been dedicated to the refinement of the "Pursuit of Happiness." Of course, the level of knowledge of libertarianism is close to zero, as is that of Objectivism. So the philosophical state of the country must be considered a fragile one, at best. But maybe, also, a fortunate accidental combination of history, tradition and culture has shaped this piece of the Old World into a fantastic breeding ground awaiting its own libertarian revolution. So, without further ado, I hereby pronounce Spain the winner of the first ever SEATBELT INDEX AWARD, with an 8 for Reason, a 5 for Liberty and a 9 for the Pursuit of Happiness. TOTAL: 22 out of 30. Paella, anyone?

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