Sixty-year old Jan Davis plunged to her death because her borrowed parachute didn't open during a jump she made from El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, on October 22. Her death immediately sparked a storm of controversy concerning how much risk people should be permitted to undertake in a free society.
When adventurers want to indulge their fancy, the question arises how this might be done so that they confine the risk to themselves. And adventures are a big part of any human life, though they do not always involve fatal risks. When the adventure takes place in a public realm, political trouble looms on the horizon.
The problem with public spheres such as national forests is that they are public, that is, owned by the government. Policy there will be decided in the customary semi-democratic fashion in which public policies get decided. If there is a substantial and active majority in favor of some policy, it will be implemented, never mind its objective merits. The same goes when it is opposed.
A good example is race car driving in most parts of the world. It is certainly a hazardous activity, yet it is not banned but accommodated, given that most people want it. True, it is accommodated often on private race tracks. But it is quite often conducted on public roads, as are bicycle and motorcycle races. Even normal driving qualifies as a publicly approved hazardous activity: people want to drive and often at speeds and on roads that are pretty dangerous.
Eating various foods, too, can be hazardous to one's health, but since it goes on in private, the public authorities haven't quite managed to regulate it as per their caprice.
Not so with smoking. Still, only where the substantial majority has decided that smoking should be banned has it been made illegal or regulated so as not to encourage most folks to light up. Depending on the political winds, one can see democratic societies favor or discourage various risky conduct.
At Yosemite National Park officials, probably following hints from the relevant political constituency, decided no longer to allow the hazardous activity of parachute jumping. It is this decision that, ironically, Jan Davis was protesting with her jump when she met her demise.
Yet, if support for the jumps came from a large enough segment of the California population to make politicians fear banning the activity, this particular jump might never have been made. Instead jumps of a more routine kind would have continued.
But the ways of democracy are that the politically active majority decides, regardless of the merits of some practice or the rights of those who engage in it.
And that is not the way a free society should function. One way to help matters is to privatize the places where risky tasks are to be undertaken.
If a place like Yosemite were private, the owners could decided whether to permit parachuting. And they would have strong incentives to make sure that if they do allow it, it would not involve lax safety measures, lest they become liable for mishaps. Or chutists could form associations that could purchase places suitable for jumping (and perhaps other recreational and productive activities) and jump at their own risk. Insurance companies could set standards that would make it more imperative to address safety measures. Government bans, however, would not be an option.
Why would this be wise? Because that is how individual rights are best protected. Making it possible for people to do risky things is part of protecting their rights. Indeed, we all routinely do take risks, but perhaps ones that are widely approved of, when we undertake risks that the majority does not wish to ban.
Why should risks the majority--or their hired bureaucrats--wants to ban be prohibited? There is no good reason. Of course, perhaps the risks should not be taken. But then perhaps one shouldn't jump into one's car or catch a plane and rush about for various more or less unimportant purposes, given that the probability of getting involved in a crash is never zero. That the majority doesn't find that objectionable doesn't make the risk taking any different, however.
The simple fact is that some people find parachute jumping and other somewhat unusually risky activities important enough to them, given who they are, that they want to pursue these, never mind what the majority thinks of it. And why should they be forbidden to?
The fact that it may be hazardous is not a good reason--we have already seen that hundreds of hazardous activities are permitted. Free men and women are free precisely in that they govern their own lives. And if others want to govern them, they must gain consent. Not just democratic support but individual consent. That is what individual freedom means. And motorcycle jumpers, chutists, deep sea divers and skiers are not exempt from having their basic individual rights respected and protected.
But the larger the public realm (that which the government controls) becomes, the more individuals will become subject to public authority in all realms of conduct that should in fact remain private (or social with willing companions). In a democratic system that means that all of us are subject to the will of the politically outspoken majority. In a dictatorship it means subject to the will of the tyrant.
So as not to allow democracies to turn into tyrannies of the majority, public realms need to be reduced--fewer places must fall under public authority and more need to fall under private authority. Yes, this may pose risks. But what kind of freedom does not pose risks?
TIBOR R. MACHAN teaches philosophy at Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute.