Creeping Totalitarianism


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In the past decade, public smoking bans in America have become increasingly commonplace; governmental efforts to institute such bans often prove successful, primarily because the majority of Americans do not smoke. In other words, the majority can only gain from such legislation. Supporters reason that they should not have to inhale second-hand smoke every time they patronize the local bar. This argument is seemingly sound; most ban backers this author has encountered do indeed provide this justification when endeavoring to legitimize their views. Once effective counterarguments are rendered, however, supporters often change the foundation in which their ban advocacy initially appeared to be rooted. They then contend that employers have a responsibility to provide a smoke-free environment for their employees. Neither justification is well-reasoned. Moreover, it is unambiguous that public smoking bans are incompatible with private property rights.
If one does not wish to inhale cigarette smoke when he goes for a weekend outing, then that individual can opt to visit a non-smoking establishment. A private business, contrary to popular opinion, is private property. The owner of the business is entitled to run it in any manner she desires. It seems many believe that because a private business caters to the “public,” the business is public property (i.e., the property of government oligarchs). Accordingly, they think, it is appropriate for the authorities to institute and enforce public smoking bans. Since when does setting foot on private premises render you the owner of those premises?
No one is forced to visit a particular bar, restaurant, club, etc. Many counter that they wish to patronize a town watering hole, but all local holes permit smoking. These irrationalists fail to appreciate the simple fact that the very existence of these businesses is merely a side effect of the business owners pursuing their self-interest. That is, they aren’t selling you those Bud Lights to make you happy, but rather to get your money. The business owner, given that she is a maximizer of profit (evil capitalist!), will implement a smoking ban if economic conditions are such that it is profitable to do so. The absence of such a ban should illuminate the fact that it is nothing of the sort. Top-down public smoking bans are a blatant violation of business owners’ property rights, allowing the masses (non-smokers) to essentially seize control over private property. If smoking is occurring in a bar and you voluntarily enter that bar, then you should accept the obvious consequence of doing so: breathing smoke. Your desire not to, even if the vast majority of your fellow citizens feel similarly, does not constitute a valid justification for government encroachment upon private property rights.
The other contention, that employees are entitled to a smoke-free workplace, occasions similar counterarguments. No individual is forced to work at any specific business. When one applies for a job at a smoking establishment, he should be prepared to inhale smoke when on the job. If he does not like it, he is free to seek employment elsewhere.
At this point some assert that every individual is entitled to a smoke-free workplace regardless of where he opts to work. A slight smile crosses this author’s face when one plays this card. As a consequence of one’s advocacy of this notion, one must support banning smoking in private households. After all, the plumber, the painter, and the interior designer who make house calls are entitled to a smoke-free environment. “That’s ridiculous, we don’t want that!”, they shoot back. On the contrary: the logical policy implication of this argument would in fact be a ban on smoking in every place where individuals work: private residences, parks, city streets, etc. In other words: a universal smoking ban. Is that compatible with the principles of a free society?
The lesson to be drawn from this phenomenon is profound. It seems to this author that his fellow citizenry is all too ready to accept governmental usurpation of private property as long as they benefit from it. Such support, however, opens the floodgates to further controls. Many of these will inevitably be measures that smoking ban supporters are not particularly fond of. The principle that legitimizes public smoking bans in supporters’ eyes, however, is as follows: governmental encroachment upon private property rights is valid if it makes me happy. One’s acceptance of this principle constitutes forfeiture of one’s right to protest increasingly invasive and decreasingly popular legislation.


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Alex Schroeder's picture
Columns on STR: 11




ws's picture

superb insight ! Surprisingly accurate . WS

Glen Allport's picture

Nicely done column; gets to the root of things. The power elite are thrilled to have people on the "left" and "right" jockeying for a chance to add their own favored tyranny to the mix; when the voters tire of the current party in power and put the opposite wing in charge, the new "leaders" begin adding "their side's" desired tyrannies WITHOUT dismantling the tyranny added by the previous crowd, despite campaign promises.

This ratchet effect ensures that government power grows reliably, year after year. Smoking bans, as Alex points out, are just one example of the process.