If It Saves One Life . . .

by Kevin D. Williamson

In his tireless campaign to curtail Americans’ civil rights — the right to keep and bear arms is a civil right — President Obama resorted to the old “if it saves one life” standard: “If there’s just one life we can save, we’ve got an obligation to try.”

The administration in truth holds itself to no such standard. There currently is under way a very dumb debate about requiring automakers to install rearview cameras in all new cars. About 200 Americans, about half of them small children, die annually in back-over accidents. Parents of children who have died in that fashion have been leading a campaign to mandate cameras, and the makers of those devices are not opposed to making their purchase obligatory.

The problem for the Obama administration is that the White House is still in the car business. The Obama administration is the proud owner of 241 million shares of General Motors stock, and the United Auto Workers union is the proud owner of the Obama administration. The president’s allies in the automotive industry do not want the use of cameras mandated. Rearview cameras are available on most new vehicles, but they are not standard, and it would be expensive — a few billion dollars a year — to make them standard.

So the administration has delayed.

Backup cameras are hardly the state of the art. If you are so inclined, the gentlemen in Stuttgart and Munich would be pleased to sell you a fine sedan with an array of sensors that detects pedestrians and animals, automatically applying the brakes when appropriate. And the terribly bright kids in Mountain View are ready to go that one better.

The problem with the “if it saves just one life” standard, other than being outlandishly stupid, is that it fails to take into account scarcity, which is fundamental to the human condition. Are 200 lives worth $2 billion? Of course they are; life is priceless. But scarcity is real. There are very good reasons that we do not require, for example, that all of the safety features found on the $100,000 Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan be made mandatory on all vehicles. Would doing save even one life? Yes, it probably would save many lives: While President Obama attempts to derive political benefit from fear-mongering about violent crime, which has been in a long and steady decline, automotive deaths are a much more significant problem. Reducing automotive deaths by one-third would save as many lives as eliminating all murders involving firearms.

If you want to follow that line of thought a little farther down the rabbit hole, consider that the number of children killed in back-over accidents annually is less than the number of people struck by subway cars in New York City in a typical year. Should we retrofit the nation’s metros with barriers? It would save lives.

Perhaps the president should apply that “save one life” standard to his own politics. Living under Democratic municipal governance is a dangerous thing: While the U.S. homicide rate is just under five per 100,000, the average combined rate in New Orleans, Detroit, St. Louis, Newark, Baltimore, Oakland, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Cincinnati — great centers of Democratic power — is nearly 32 per 100,000. That is more than six times the national rate — and ten times the rate of murders in the cities identified as America’s most conservative by the Bay Area Center for Voting Research.

If it saves one life, can we mandate that everybody drive a Volvo and live in Scottsdale?