Last Wednesday, a Chicago Alderman named Brendan Reilly, introduced a new ordinance that would make it easier for Windy City cops to issue tickets for “illegal” motorcycle exhausts. What was most noteworthy about Reilly’s new law was the argument he used to justify it.
“A lot of motorcycle owners alter their muffler to make the motorcycle much louder,” Reilly explained to his fellow politicians. “It’s kind of a macho thing. And when you get a group of 25 or 30 motorcycles in one location doing this with illegal pipes, it’s deafening…. Anywhere on Lake Shore Drive, South Side, North Side, central business district, it’s a real issue. In my ward at least, the experience is it sounds like it’s in your living room. The higher up you live, the louder it gets.”
Reilly told Fran Spielman of the Chicago Sun-Times, “The way the code was written, there were certain specific things you had to cite and only the State Police were trained to do that. “They’ve since changed the way these pipes are labeled. Now, a police officer by sight can determine whether the pipe is legal or not. This is just modernizing the code to allow Chicago Police to enforce this on their own.”
Reilly’s position invites questions no one in the Chicago press corps seemed awake enough to ask.
In the case of Harley-Davidson motorcycles for example, owners exchange factory pipes for replacements because it adds an immediate ten horsepower to their bikes. The horsepower of Harleys dropped steadily for years because the only way the motor company could make their bikes meet arbitrary pollution standards was by literally choking their engines. Riders have balked at this because an important part of staying alive on a Harley is avoiding stupid and oblivious automobile drivers. And a key component of that, on a 650 pound motorcycle, is throttle response and torque.
Harleys are powered by what are basically 19th Century engines and noise at the rear of the exhaust is a key indicator of the engine power. Up to a point, the more power the motor generates the louder the exhaust will be. There is even a name for the virtually mandatory pipe change on a new Harley. It’s called the Harley tax.
It is also an axiom among most Harley riders that loud pipes save lives. Guys like Reilly scoff at that but it is still true whether he understands or not. For various psychological reasons, including driver expectations about what they will see and how well drivers estimate the distance of vehicles that are much smaller than cars, motorcycles are virtually invisible on the roads. Cars are also being ever more soundproofed – a feature that has become a selling point. So to be recognized at all motorcyclist must do something. And as obnoxious as Reilly thinks loud pipes are they are much less obnoxious than alternative ways to shake inattentive drivers out of their trances – like get-back whips.
And, then there is Reilly’s comment that people who live in higher, more expensive apartments are most victimized by the rabble in the streets which may or may not make the Alderman’s comments sound more elitist and less egalitarian than he meant them to be. But what bothers many people most about the Nanny state is that some politicians seem to just assume the right to boss less evolved and enlightened people around.
The Nanny State
In 1859, in an essay called On Liberty, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that the only valid reason to interfere with someone’s liberty was to prevent harm to others. Mill allowed limited exceptions to his harm principle: Children and the mentally incompetent should not be allowed to judge the potential harm of their actions; the government should be allowed to draft men to fight in wars; people who are unaware that they are about to drive off a broken bridge should be stopped; and prize fighters should be allowed to punch each other in the face.
Everybody loves John Stuart Mill including proponents of Nanny State paternalism but the meaning of his harm principle has become twisted in the last century and a half. Proponents of government intervention in personal decisions – like helmet laws or limiting the size of soft drinks or, maybe more reasonably, limited access to prescription medications – cite the collective wisdom of our greater society compared to the relative incompetence of individuals. The argument, to use another example, is that cigarette use should be limited because cigarettes harm people, many people in past lawsuits have claimed not to know this and there is some evidence that non-smokers are harmed by second hand smoke.
The arguments always start when the people who make laws limiting individual choice are less informed than the people effected by those laws. That’s certainly the case with most laws that work bikers into a lather. It is probably reasonable to suppose that Alderman Reilly couldn’t find the start button on a motorcycle if his life depended on it and that the noise problem he sees could be managed in a less heavy handed way. But, that is hardly what is most offensive about his remarks last week.
The War On Machismo
What is startling in Reilly’s words is his eagerness to blame his noise problem on excessive masculinity – and his assumption that machismo is something that needs to be regulated. It is an assumption that peeves many thoughtful people with disparate social philosophies.
The prevailing ideal of what a man should be and how he should act has evolved from John Wayne to the New Male. The ideal male politician has evolved from Teddy Roosevelt to a President whose wife has bigger biceps than he does.
And, this is pertinent to bikers because riding an old-fashioned Harley is indicative of a style of masculinity. To belong to virtually any motorcycle club is first and foremost a way of being a man. At its core, the current international war on motorcycle clubs is a war on an old fashioned style of masculinity and its inherent antiauthoritarianism. Bikers, particularly patch holders, do what they want to do as an expression of their manhood.
The fact that a minor politician in Chicago should justify making it easier to punish people because he thinks they are too “macho” is not very important or newsworthy. The fact that so many lawmakers in North America, Western Europe and Australia would agree with him is.