JOHN HOOD: Clubbing Personal Freedom
For anyone still unsure how to distinguish the warring political camps on the subject of individual freedom, I'd suggest a close look at new proposal in the North Carolina General Assembly to ban smoking from virtually all buildings across the state, public or private.
Rep. Hugh Holliman of Davidson County, the new House majority leader, has long supported state efforts to prohibit tobacco use. A former smoker who lost a sister to lung cancer, Holliman is sincere in his intentions. That doesn't make them any less illiberal (using the correct, older definition of the term). His bill would not exempt restaurants, bars, or even cigar clubs from the prohibition -- unless the clubs are nonprofit.
(Well, I'll go out on a limb and suggest that if you ban cigar smoking from cigar clubs, they won't be profitable. That's not what is meant, of course.)
The reason the smoking-ban issue is an excellent test of one's commitment to individual freedom is that smoking does, indeed, pose significant health risks. It's easy to endorse the freedom of others to do what you prefer or think is good for them. What's difficult is to endorse the freedom of others to act in ways you disapprove of or think is harmful to them.
The case for freedom is not based on the absence of moral absolutes or personal consequences. It is based on the principle that human beings ought to be free to discover these moral absolutes and personal consequences for themselves, as long as their actions do not infringe on other individuals' equal rights to do the same.
In the case of smoking bans, advocates often make several arguments designed to evade the fundamental issue of individual freedom.
For example, they argue that smoking is addictive and so smokers are incapable of making free choices. But this misunderstands the meaning of "free choice." Lots of decisions we make every day are difficult ones, requiring us to sacrifice, to go against our natural impulses, or to overcome strong temptations.
Just as millions of people have tried and failed to quit smoking, millions of people have tried and failed to lose weight, to stop drinking to excess, to control their tempers, or to plan wisely for their retirement. Of course, millions of people have also succeeded in doing these things.
A free choice in this context means simply that the action was not taken under threat of legal sanction or other physical force.
Another common argument is to suggest that the employees of restaurants and bars lack the choice to avoid the tobacco smoke, and therefore must be protected by government fiat. But they are employees, not slaves. Of course, they have the freedom to choose whether to work in a smoke-filled environment. Add workers preferring smoke-free restaurants to patrons preferring smoke-free restaurants, and you have a strong market incentive for owners to open more smoke-free restaurants.
As you can tell, I dislike the entire concept of government prohibition. Prohibitionists inevitably must believe that their fellow citizens are stupid, confused, or incompetent. And prohibition schemes often impose so many economic and social costs that whatever good they do in protecting people from themselves -- assuming that is a good -- is often outweighed by the adverse consequences, which include economic losses, misuse of law-enforcement personnel and resources, and public disrespect for the law.
But even if I thought the General Assembly should enact a sweeping prohibition on smoking in publicly accessible buildings, I would still be puzzled by Holliman's legislation, which makes no good-faith effort to accommodate the thousands of North Carolinians who might want to smoke in private bars and clubs.
The nonprofit exception is tiny, and the beneficiaries are disproportionately well-to-do. At the very least, the law ought to let private businesses set up member-only enterprises that cater to adult patrons and employees who want to actually be treated as adults.
I'm feeling a strong temptation of my own to ban faulty logic and disingenuous arguments from political debate. Someone restrain me.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal.com
More like this story