Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Why Smoking Bans Suck

Say our legislature is given three policy choices. Option 1 mandates the preferences of Group A by law. Option 2 mandates the preferences of Group B by law. And option 3 doesn't enforce either preference by law, allowing individuals and institutions the choice of supporting the preferences of either Group A or Group B.

Many of us would chose option 3, as we can see the inherent unfairness of the law coming down strongly in favor of either side. Yet when it comes to smoking, people tend to have their blinders on, or perhaps their nostrils wide open. To hell with everyone else, non-smokers like smoking bans because they're happy to avoid the smell of smoke. But non-smokers have to ask themselves something- is it really okay to allow smoking bans just because a majority of people want them? Would it be okay to force business owners to permit smoking? The libertarian answer is you don't force individuals and businesses to be smoking and you don't force them to be non-smoking.

The truth about tobacco is that most establishments had phased out smoking on their own. Before Connecticut's smoking ban went into effect, you couldn't smoke in just about every single store and business in the state. You couldn't smoke in fast food restaurants and many family oriented restaurants had implemented non-smoking policies. This was all a result of business and individuals making decisions about how to best cater to the needs of consumers. The smoking ban was passed because some do-gooders thought the outliers- mostly bars and more adult restaurants- needed to be pushed to make the "right" decision.

So what about bars? As I insinuated earlier, many people who support smoking bans do so under the assumption that "other people don't have the right to pollute the air we share with their tobacco smoke." It's not a bad argument for public spaces like city halls and local parks, where everyone has a right to be, but it's a bad argument for indoor businesses. After all, most of us would agree that it's one thing to ban nude dancing and lap dances in city hall and public parks, but quite another to ban it in private businesses. And here's where the arguments of the moderate anti-smokers fall apart- Most people would not have a problem with a smoker's club, a place where smokers can go and smoke. The problem is, except for specifically private clubs, anti-smoking laws tend not to allow these sorts of exceptions, because the exceptions would overwhelm the law. If a smoking club open to the public is okay, than why not a smoking club that serves alcohol, like a bar- and if bars could obtain an exemption from the law, they would, because plenty of bar patrons like to smoke, which is why before the anti-smoking laws were enacted, bars were the one locale where the anti-smoking crusade saw no leeway.

Ultimately, this issue is really about forcing businesses to do what they would not have done voluntarily. I don't believe there were any non-smoking bars around before the law existed, but that was a result of market factors and individual choices, not a government mandate. Any entrepreneur could have started a non-smoking bar and anyone would have been free to go there. The fact that there weren't any such bars says a great deal about the market.

Do people have the right to avoid breathing in other people's smoke? Sure, to an extent. You can't come to my house and tell me not to smoke. So why should you be able to come to my bar and tell me the exact same thing? I personally find that the music at bars can be far too loud and gets in the way of conversation- should the government regulate noise levels as well because some of us are bothered by them? It's not like non-smokers have a god-given right to some particular non-smoky bar experience. People make choices for themselves and the sum of the choices made by individuals is how the market functions.

Why do I rant so much? Because this is an issue that really gets to me, an issue where people tend to excuse their Nazi-like behavior because of some perceived public health benefit or just because of what they want. Comments welcome.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My libertarian test for any proposed law is this:
(1) Does the proposed law address an actual and substantial harm?
(2) Can the average citizen avoid or protect himself from the harm without the help of the government?

To pass muster, the proposed law must satisfy BOTH prongs of the test.

A law banning ugly pink houses fails the first prong (no actual harm, just a preference, is involved), but passes the second (normally, I can't force my neighbor to repaint his house).

A law against overeating passes the first prong, but not the second (for obvious reasons).

A law mandating health inspections of restaurant kitchens passes BOTH prongs (I could get food poisoning but can't inspect the kitchen myself).

Smoking bans FAIL BOTH prongs (most studies show secondhand smoke poses no health risk or a risk that is statistically insignificant--and anyone can avoid secondhand smoke exposure by staying away from smoky bars).

5:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be more precise, for a proposed law to pass my libertarian test, the answer to the first prong of the test must be "Yes" and the answer to the second prong must be "No".

5:45 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

Couldn't have put it better myself.

10:41 AM  

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