Free Jerry Seinfeld!
Any fan of the classic 1990s sitcom Seinfeld knows the unfortunate conclusion by which the series ends. Jerry Seinfeld, with his friends and the show's three mainstays, Elaine Benes, George Costanza, and Cosmo Kramer, are on their way to Paris in NBC's company jet, which was loaned to Seinfeld in return for the network keeping the pilot of his sitcom, Jerry (a show about "nothing"), on the shelf for five years. Upon Kramer's erratic jumping and clumsily stumbling into the plane's cockpit (not all that strange of an occurrence in comparison to Kramer's typical behavior), an emergency landing ensues in the fictional town of Latham, Massachusetts. While awaiting takeoff, the foursome witnesses an overweight man being robbed.
The following ensues:
The key takeaway from the incident is when the Latham police officer tells the group, "The law requires you to help or assist anyone in danger as long as it's reasonable to do so." This is the essence of what is known as Good Samaritan laws, which require the public to act on the behalf of a victim when witnessing a crime taking place.
The coercion of such laws should immediately strike a nerve for Austro-libertarians. As Walter Block noted,
If the state is capable of forcing citizens to act in lieu of nonaction, then there remains only a very fine line between liberty and slavery. One could argue that no difference at all exists between Good Samaritan laws and laboring under bondage. The rationale behind such laws comes down to the belief that members of the public are obligated to help their fellow citizens. The fact that such obligation comes from the barrel of a government gun goes unacknowledged. Collectivist arguments rarely consider methodological individualism, for it would stick a wrench into the social engineering of the few over the masses. After all, it's always individuals who act, not groups.
From the libertarian perspective, the imprisonment of Jerry and friends is unjustified based on the principle of property rights alone. No one should be forced by any state, no matter how small in jurisdiction, to act on the behalf of others. Salvation through coercion is still coercion nonetheless. The guilty verdict issued by Judge Art Vandelay (perhaps motivated by George's false use of the name in picking up women and lying to potential employers) in spite of the spirited defense by bombastic lawyer Jackie Chiles demonstrates the inherent contradiction with Good Samaritan laws:
Callous indifference and utter disregard for everything that is good and decent rocked the foundation on which society is built.
Society is composed of individuals, not the other way around. Equivocating "good and decent" with compulsion through the threat of imprisonment is no better than fruitlessly making the moral case for military conscription. As Chiles, who parodies the late Johnnie Cochran, ironically stated,
You don't have to help anybody … that's what this country is all about.
Chiles' claim, no matter how appealing to libertarians or even objectivists, has been refuted by decades of government mandates including FICA taxes, welfare redistribution, perpetual warfare under the guise of humanitarianism, and endless private-sector bailouts through government loans or central-bank liquidity injections.
None of this is to say that we should never act on behalf of others. If a robbery occurs directly in front of you, an argument can be made that you should intervene if you are capable of doing so. That isn't to say you should barrel into a quarrel with armed men without any defensive weapons of your own. The vagueness of the word "reasonable" shows the true fallacy of Good Samaritan laws imposed by the state. By what criteria is "reasonable" determined? Is it even possible for such a concrete decision to be made? Because individuals are different in thoughts as well as physical ability, how a state official determines such instances is a true pretense of knowledge.
While Jerry and the Seinfeld crew ended a beloved nine-season television series in jail, the disastrous effects of government-enforced Good Samaritan laws presented in the last episode are obvious. Laws based on the subjective values of fallible bureaucrats end up creating more complications rather than the strict enforcement of property rights. Good Samaritan laws are really a skirting of responsibility on the part of public officials. They are paid by confiscatory taxes, supposedly to "protect and serve." Instead they pass that responsibility back to the taxpayers — without compensation. This is the nature of the state: unintended consequences brought about by short-term and damaging policies by those who think they know how society operates best.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.