Paul Beston has an article (not yet available online) in the latest City Journal criticizing the New York City Council for a new law that bans the use of metal bats in public high school baseball games. The logic of the ban is that metal bats cause more injuries to fielders, especially pitchers, because baseballs fly off metal bats harder and faster than off wooden ones, giving players in the field less time to react. Although a 12-year-old boy in New Jersey went into cardiac arrest after being struck in the chest by a ball hit by a metal bat, the case against forged bats is not open-and-shut. Little League baseball is opposed to the ban, and a study by American Legion Baseball found no proof that wooden bats are safer. John Franco, who was the Mets closer for many years, testified to the Council in support of the ban, while Mike Mussina of the Yankees testified against it.
(If you haven’t spent much time at nonprofessional baseball games, you might not be aware that aluminum bats have almost completely driven wooden bats out of use. The change has come about because of economics, not sadism: metal bats almost never break, while wooden ones often do, so the savings for a college or high school program over the course of a few seasons are significant. Metal bats have their critics, apart from safety issues. Baseball purists like to hear the crack of the bat, not the ping. Pitching coaches worry that the greater bat speed of the aluminum bats prevents young pitchers from ever learning how to pitch inside, because every pitch there winds up an extra-base hit.)
Beston’s article makes a more general, and more political point: this ordinance, like the city’s restrictions on smoking in bars and fatty foods, is another example of the metropolitan nanny-state. They are all expressions of the “underlying belief” that “too much liberty is hazardous to your health.”
Ben Adler, who blogs for The American Prospect slid into Beston, spikes first: “This clearly expresses a fundamental tenet of conservative/libertarian thinking: that engaging in risky behavior with serious social costs is an entitlement. People who are injured by metal bats, or fall ill from smoking or fatty food, cost the rest of us money. We pay their emergency room bill, their Medicare bills or their Social Security disability insurance. Only someone willing to forgo those benefits should have the right to also opt out of public health laws like those passed by the New York City Council, or pre-existing ones requiring that motorcyclists wear helmets and drivers wear seat belts.”
Adler clearly expresses a fundamental tenet of liberal thinking: the more the welfare and regulatory state grows, the more it needs to grow. Every step making social insurance more comprehensive provides a new justification for regulating what primitive peoples call “private” behavior. The elaboration of the welfare state means that there is no such thing. Because we all indemnify one another through the state, we all have the right to protect our investment in one another through state regulations. Given the financial burden imposed on our Spartan citizens by our Falstaffian ones, Adler’s argument can be put to all sorts of uplifting purposes. Nothing in his logic rules out governmentally mandated diets and exercise regimens.
Adler mocks the hypocrisy of conservatives who deplore public health regulations but are unwilling to forgo public insurance protections. That’s strictly minor-league, however, compared to the Hall of Fame hypocrisy of liberals who insist that social insurance programs must be universal, then berate conservatives for never availing themselves of our welfare state’s non-existent opt-out provisions. The American Propsect furiously denounced Pres. Bush’s proposal to let people keep a portion of their Social Security taxes in private accounts, if and only if they chose to, as a barbaric move that would shred the social contract. Adler wants to have it both ways, to lock conservatives in the house and then criticize them for not leaving.
Conservatives do not, in fact, think that engaging in risky behavior with serious social costs is an entitlement. They do, however, think that liberty is an inalienable right that government exists to secure, not a threat it exists to secure us from. In Adler’s formulation, there are no behaviors that are not risky, no costs that are not social, and no personal choices that cannot be regulated by a government that’s always there when you need it, and always there when you don’t.