In the final episode of the "Seinfeld," Jerry and the gang found themselves in legal trouble when they failed to come to the aid of a distressed citizen. By violating the "Good Samaritan" law of the town they were visiting, they wound up in jail. Unlike other laws similarly labeled that merely protect would-be helpers from liability, this law made it illegal not to offer such assistance.
It has long been the case in most jurisdictions that, while one may have a moral obligation to help those in danger, one cannot be held legally responsible to render such aid. After all, by helping a drowning person, for example, a potential rescuer might himself die in the attempt. There is also the fact that "forced" charity is an oxymoron. The very concept of "charity" contains the notion of voluntary assistance to the less fortunate in life.
Beyond this fact is the moral component: a person is not "good" or "moral" if he is coerced into doing what is "right." Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons robs the behavior of ethical import just as performing such otherwise admirable acts because of fear of legal punishment (i.e., without one's freewill choice) destroys any sense of operating in the realm of morality.
The general lack of a legally mandated duty to nameless others has long been under attack by altruists and collectivists.
They appear to be gaining ground.
For example, when a group of teens failed to take a friend who had OD'ed on ecstacy (sic) to the hospital, the girl died. Many believed the young people should have been criminally charged for their negligence; that it was their legal responsibility to take care of her and to foresee the possibility of her death. (We'll pass over for the moment that the Drug War, perhaps, just maybe, may have contributed to their hesitancy in reporting illegal drug usage to medical authorities.)
A current case in New Jersey concerns Kenneth Powell, originally charged with manslaughter, vehicular homicide, and aggravated assault with a vehicle after a drunk driver struck the car driven by John Elliott in July, 2000, and killed the Navy Ensign. Powell, however, was not driving drunk or even anywhere near the scene of the accident. He did, however, pick up his friend, Michael Pangle, from the police station after he was arrested for driving while intoxicated. He then returned Pangle to his car which Pangle subsequently drove into Elliott's vehicle. Pangle also died in the accident.
(Powell was acquitted of the manslaughter charge, but the jury hung on the other charges. He may face another trial on those indictments.)
That anti-freedom organization, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, fully supported Powell's arrest. They agree that anyone who hosts a party or sells alcohol to someone should be held responsible for the bad choices other people make. In other words, they want other people to be forced to take positive action to help someone who is acting badly or finds himself in trouble. Some who shudder at such belligerent and arrogant attitudes see the day when those who distribute or make liquor will be the ones with their heads in the legal noose.
Another example of imposing a "duty to help" comes from Massachusetts. Three drug stores there -- CVS, Walgreens, and Brooks Pharmacy -- decided that they were losing too much money filling prescriptions for Medicaid recipients given the state's low reimbursements. They intended to withdraw from the program. Governor Jane Swift would have none of that nonsense. Those poor Medicaid patients need those medicines. Indeed, they might die if they do not receive their pills.
So, by golly, Swift decided that the state would try "to force the companies to stay in the Medicaid program." They must legally be required to help these indigent souls. It's "a good time for a little corporate responsibility," Swift said. Seemingly, the patients themselves are innocent of any obligation to provide for their own medical requirements. And, of course, the evil businesses' first responsibility must be -- not to their stockholders or employees -- but to people who cannot pay their bills. Those tragic folks must not "be denied access to necessary drugs," according to Swift -- forgetting that no one is "denying" them access to drugs. All these "neediest citizens" have to do is pay for the goods they desire.
A third example -- long predicted by anyone with an ounce of sense who understands statists and collectivists -- concerns the recent lawsuits against the fast food industry. (See, for example, my essay, "Fat of the Land.") Attorney John Banzhaf claims that ol' Ronnie McD has a positive obligation to help people refrain from consuming the very products that has made him famous. Just as "guns kill people," "fast food makes you fat." I guess a Big Mac and large fries drags you from your car, seizes the money from your wallet, and then leaps down your throat, forcing you to chew and swallow or risk choking to death.
Redefining standards for obesity and deliberately blurring the lines between those who are obese versus merely overweight, these litigation fanatics and their media shills not only exaggerate the problem but over-dramatize the danger by calling obesity an "epidemic." (Not only does "fast food make you fat," fat is contagious...) Banzhaf claims that people cannot really be responsible for their obesity if the restaurants do not fulfill their positive duty to ensure that fatties receive full and complete nutritional information on that double-bacon, triple-decker cheeseburger they are about to consume. (I guess without the restaurant giving him such facts, the poor fast food aficionado will be fooled into thinking his meal is a health food snack.)
It's also the fast food chains' fault because they give you too much value for your money, actually advertise their products in order to sell more of them (and deliberately target children!!!), and are way too convenient. After all, as Banzhaf said, it can be "difficult to avoid being fat." So, by all means, let's force someone else to help the genetically predisposed to avoid their sorry fate.
On a recent CBS Sunday morning news show, activist Kelly Brownell -- himself quite well rounded -- said that appealing to self-responsibility is not a good idea. "We've tried that and it failed." So, what the hey, right? Let's attack the nasty fast food folks because certain unfortunates have been "seduced into a lifestyle that leads them to eat unhealthy foods." That food is like a bomb, waiting to explode! Aaiieee!!
Lawyer Banzhaf is quite familiar with such horrors. He said others laughed when he sat down to play, er, when he sued the tobacco companies. No one's laughing now. Why, just ask screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, author of Flashdance, Basic Instinct, and other much more forgettable cinematic efforts. He was a dedicated smoker who had many of his on-screen characters smoke, as well.
This megalomaniac believes that he and his Hollywood brethren are all-powerful. (Bow before their darkness!) But he suffers not only the pain of cancer and losing part of his larynx, he now also bears the terrible burden of guilt. Yes, you see, he is moved to prayer. Prayer and a desire to force Hollywood to help the benighted beings of America escape that red-eyed creature, the tobacco industry.
Poor ol' Joe finds "it hard to forgive" himself. He is "an accomplice to the murders of untold numbers of human beings." (So why haven't we locked this maniac in jail and executed him?) He can stumble on, however, because he has "a deal with God." He's out to spread the Word, the truth about cigarettes.
This pathetic loser has seen the light. (Amen! Hallelujah!...He even goes to church on Sunday.) No longer does he believe that anyone has a right to smoke. Treat tobacco like heroin, he says. He wants to "undo the damage I have done" via his writing. Glamorizing "smoking is unconscionable." Ol' Joe and the demons of advertising help kill "nearly 10,000 people daily." (Why aren't these monsters in jail????) After all, "A cigarette in the hands of a...star...is a gun aimed at a" young person. A gun! (Yes, he piles evil upon evil!) His "hands are bloody; so are Hollywood's."
Somehow those who smoke do not choose to do so. No. The responsibility is not theirs. Somehow the great and powerful Oz, er, Joe and his buds are the ones pulling the strings. The puppets they force to smoke are unwitting dupes, no better or more culpable than programmed robots. By golly, ol' Joe even believes Meathead, aka, Rob Reiner of All in the Family fame, is a "hero" for seeking to stamp out the evil weed in California. (Somehow, someway, though, the tobacco industry folks, the people on Madison Avenue, and the Hollywood elite are not mindless victims of their environment or genes. Huh.)
So, by golly, let's force restaurants and bars and malls and offices to help the smoker overcome his addiction. It's not his fault, after all. Others have a duty to assist him, even if they don't want to.
Let's face it. When we get right down to it, our whole society -- indeed, the whole world -- is one tangled web of "Good Samaritan" laws. While the principle has not yet spread completely, what in essence is the difference between forcing a person -- at the risk to his own well-being -- to help an accident victim and forcing a person to pay for someone else's health care, housing, food, clothing, or anything else she (or those in power) believe is "necessary" to protect her while the "giver's" own chances at a successful life are thereby diminished? Coercion applied to an innocent bystander at an accident scene is as much a violation of rights as is taxation or conscription or prior restraint legislation.
It's all of a package.
So don't let the current "loopholes" (i.e., last shreds of freedom) regarding "Good Samaritan" demands fool you. I can hear those shrill little voices in the distance growing louder and louder as they crowd closer and closer around us:
"You have to help. You have to help!"
CBSNews.com. "Battle Of The Widening Bulge" Aug. 8, 2002. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/08/08/eveningnews/printable518023.shtml
CBSNews.com. "First Cigarettes, Now Burgers." 7-15-02. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/07/12/earlyshow/health/printable515016.shtml
Eszterhas, Joe. "Hollywood's Responsibility for Smoking Deaths." The New York Times On the Web. 8-09-02. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/09/opinion/09ESZT.html?pagewanted=print&posit
Peter, Jennifer. "Largest Drugstore Chains in Massachusetts Dropping Out of State's Medicaid Program." Boston.com. 8-01-02. http://www.boston.com/dailynews/213/nation/Largest_drugstore_chains_in_MaP.shtml
Peter, Jennifer. "Medicaid Revolt Halted -- For Now." The Cod Times. http://www.capecodonline.com/cctimes/medicaidrevolt2.htm
Robinson, Bryan, "No End to Debate." ABC.news.com. 8-12-02. http://printerfriendly.abcnews.com/printerfriendly/Print?fetchFromGLUE=true&GLUEService=ABCNewsCom