Dupes for the State
Public misunderstanding, ignorance and possibly contempt for liberty play into the hands of people who want to control our lives. Responses to my recent column “Compliant Americans” brought this home to me. In it, I argued that the anti-tobacco movement became the template and inspiration for other forms of government intrusion, such as bans on restaurants serving foie gras, McDonald’s giving Happy Meals with toys, and confiscating a child’s home-prepared lunch because it didn’t meet Department of Agriculture guidelines. A few responses read like this: “Smoking is different because that actually affects other people. We should be living by the notion that you should be able to do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt other people. Smoking hurts other people.”
If we banned or restricted all activities that affect, harm or have the possibility of harming other people, it wouldn’t be a very nice life. Let’s look at what can affect or harm other people. Non-obese people are harmed by obesity, as they have to pay more for health care, through either higher taxes or higher insurance premiums. That harm could be reduced by a national version of a measure introduced in the Mississippi Legislature in 2008 by state Rep. W.T. Mayhall that in part read, “An act to prohibit certain food establishments from serving food to any person who is obese, based on criteria prescribed by the state Department of Health.” The measure would have revoked licenses of food establishments that violated the provisions of the act. Fortunately, the measure never passed, but there’s always a next time.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2010, nearly 33,000 people were killed in auto crashes. That’s a lot of harm that could be reduced by lowering the speed limit to 5 or 10 miles an hour. You say, “Williams, that’s ridiculous!” What you really mean to say but don’t have the courage to is that to save all of those lives by making the speed limit 5 or 10 miles per hour is not worth the inconvenience. Needless to say — or almost so — there are many activities we engage in that either cause harm to others or have the potential for doing so, but we don’t ban all of these activities.
One of the least-understood functions of private property rights is that of determining who may harm whom in what ways. In a free society, it is presumed that the air in a person’s house, restaurant, hotel, car or place of business is his property. That means that if you own a restaurant and don’t want your air polluted by tobacco smoke, it is your right. Most would deem it tyranny if a bunch of smokers had the political power to get the city council to pass an ordinance forcing you to permit smoking. You’d probably deem it more respectful of liberty if those who wanted to smoke sought a restaurant owner who permitted smoking. The identical argument can be made about a restaurant owner who permits smoking in a city where nonsmokers have the political power. The issue is not whether smoking harms others. The issue is the rights associated with property ownership.
The emerging tragedy is our increased willingness to use the coercive powers of government, in the name of health or some other ruse, to forcibly impose our preferences upon others. In the whole scheme of things, the tobacco issue itself is trivial. Far more important is its template for massive government disrespect for private property.
John Adams said, “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.”
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.