February 8, 2006
The Nanny State Comes to the Chesapeake
By Trevor Bothwell

Apparently not content to confine their legislative excess to Wal-Mart and small business, Maryland Democrats now are threatening the property rights of Maryland boaters, proposing a new bill ostensibly aimed at nothing more than attempting to “protect us from ourselves.”

House Bill 140 is a deplorable and intrusive bit of legislation that would require every individual on a boat to wear a personal flotation device (PFD) while the boat is underway. This bill not only requires the boat’s operator to wear a PFD but also specifically “prohibits an individual from operating or allowing the operation of a vessel while there is present in the vessel an individual not wearing a PFD…” and “[applies] regardless of [an individual’s] age or size of the vessel.”

Considering the fact that federal law already requires all boats to contain one properly-sized personal flotation device for every individual onboard, this bill is a gratuitous display of legislative overreach that all too clearly gives the impression that the state rather than the individual knows what is in the best interest of individual citizens.

One normally would assume that the absurdity of such legislation would defy explanation, but far too many Maryland legislators apparently are either unaware of or unconcerned about the importance of private property rights and the concept of personal responsibility.

The most intimate property right one possesses is the right to own one’s body (let pro-choice Democrats refute that one). In short, if an individual boater feels the need to wear a personal flotation device while on the water, he will do so whether the state mandates it or not. A cursory glance around the Chesapeake Bay on a summer weekend afternoon validates this argument. Maryland’s waterways have been filled for years with hobbyists who fish in small boats and wear life vests for their own wellbeing.

However, given that current state law requires only small children on boats 21 feet or less in length to wear PFDs at all times, it seems there’s even more at play here than a superfluous concern for our safety. According to Boating Statistics 2004, published by the U.S. Coast Guard in September 2005, there were 206,681 motorboats registered in Maryland in 2004 and only 16 boating fatalities. Boating certainly can be a dangerous activity, but these numbers indicate that it is undeniably safe if people are smart about it and observe existing laws.

In this light, one could be forgiven for wondering whether this bill is just another ploy by Maryland legislators to stuff state coffers at the expense of our liberties, along the same line as red light cameras and night vision goggles issued to Maryland troopers to enforce seat belt laws (a project wisely discontinued by Governor Bob Ehrlich last year). Indeed, tucked away at the end of HB 140 is a section estimating that state revenues are expected to increase by as much as $700,000 by fiscal year 2007 as a result of this new law, which would allow the state to fine first-time offenders as much as $500 and slap them with a misdemeanor. A subsequent offense could carry a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment up to a year, or both (!). All for conducting oneself in a manner that is perfectly legal today.

Alas, it is becoming ever more apparent that our bureaucrats increasingly view taxpayers as little more than revenue generators -- serfs to be exploited through violation of bizarre regulations -- through which these lawmakers can finance pet projects for their own self-gratification.

Yet how odd that so few among us are incensed by such behavior. How strange that so many of us seem oblivious to the idea that if enough freedom-stomping legislation is passed, that eventually we’ll all be guilty of some crime or another, many of which are simply manufactured out of whole cloth at the hands of our politicians.

Whatever Maryland’s motives, perhaps the most offensive aspect of such nanny-statism is the undeniable fact that as government further purports to assume for its citizens the responsibilities individuals should retain for themselves, dependence upon it only increases. Extrapolated to its logical conclusion, such abuse of government authority will slowly encourage and compel citizens to surrender their liberties to the point where we effectively become wards of the state.

Trevor Bothwell is a freelance writer living in Maryland. He welcomes comments at bothwelltj@yahoo.com.

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