Howard: Welfare state limits liberties

By Giles Howard

The Pittsburgh Department of Public Works banned sledding on a hill in Frick Park and one in… The Pittsburgh Department of Public Works banned sledding on a hill in Frick Park and one in Schenley Park last week, erecting a number of signs that read “NO SLED RIDING PERMITTED” in bold red letters, the Post-Gazette reported.

Described as a “public service announcement” by Director of Public Works Rob Kaczorowski, the ban can be enforced by the police, but violation of the ban is not punishable with a fine, and renegade sledders will not be arrested.

Instead, the ban is an effort to make “people aware that [sledding] is not a sanctioned use of the property,” Kaczorowski said. Of course, with two incidents at Frick Park the weekend before the signs were posted, the ban is also an attempt to limit the city’s liability in the case of injury and protect the city from lawsuits.

Without a plan of direct enforcement or a fine for violators of the ban — and with sledding still permitted on the popular Flagstaff Hill — Pitt students shouldn’t be too inconvenienced by the new signs in Frick and Schenley parks. But the ban disrupted a winter tradition for many Pittsburghers who’ve now followed the sign’s instructions and stopped sledding on their favorite hill.

I’m not here to heap public scorn on Public Works, and I do take Kaczorowski at his word when he said that he’s not trying to be “the Grinch who stole sled riding,” but I do think that the ban says something important about government regulations: They too often penalize all of society in an effort to ensure the safety of the reckless and stupid.

Laws mandating that motorcyclists wear helmets, motorists wear seatbelts or that the foods we all consume are free of trans fat are examples of laws and policies that deprive people of choice in an attempt to protect them from themselves.

While it is easy to rail against these types of laws as unnecessarily invasive, such laws are the logical conclusion of the welfare state that we live in. After all, the state has a legitimate interest in the health of its citizens when the state is responsible for providing people with healthcare, education and food.

Because a welfare state assumes these sorts of responsibilities and pays for them with taxpayer funds, our collective tax dollars are tied-up as investments in other people’s well-being. For instance, if a motorcyclist chooses not to wear a helmet, ends up in an accident and doesn’t have insurance, the taxpayer and everyone who does have insurance pay for his medical expenses through their contributions to the system.

In this way, the economics of the welfare state devalues individual liberty and emphasizes what is economically best for the collective.

If we don’t want to live in a nation of seat belt laws and sledding regulations, we need to dismantle the welfare state and the welfare economy that ties us all together. If we lived in a city where a private police service or ambulance company responded to things like sledding injuries, I would have no reason to care if someone hurt himself while recklessly sledding around trees and cars because he — instead of my tax dollars — would be paying for the consequences of his actions.

Indeed, with the economic bonds of the welfare state broken and individuals forced to take economic responsibility for their exercise of personal liberty, the government would no longer have cause or justification to regulate a whole host of issues including everything from what we eat to what we buy.

The simple truth is that a purer personal liberty is possible, but it cannot be realized without sacrificing the public benefits provided to us all by the welfare state. If we want to have greater control over what we ingest and where we sled — and I think we should — then we have to give up the free public schools, subsidized higher education and other taxpayer-funded public services, like libraries, that we all currently enjoy.

But this isn’t as radical or impossible as it might sound. Consider that the University of Pittsburgh operates its own police force, that private schools consistently outperform public ones and that private ambulance services already exist throughout the country.

Dismantling the welfare state and privatizing traditionally public services promises to save taxpayers’ money, increase efficiency and expand individual liberties as the economic ties binding us all together are cut. Of course, it will have the added bonus of allowing city residents to sled where they choose — at their own risk.

Continue the conversation at Giles’s blog,, or e-mail Giles at [email protected].