Monday, March 23, 2009

Freedom up in Smoke?

I am not a complete Libertarian, though I have a lot of sympathy for those that are. I think it is interesting that some Libertarians are trying to claim the name "Liberal" for their ideology, and I have sometimes observed that Libertarianism and Liberalism have a fair deal in common.

I think where the two positions differ most fundamentally is over the role of the state. Liberalism does not automatically regard the state as a negative force. There are some limited areas, generally concerned with natural monopolies where Liberals believe that the state is an unavoidable presence and even a positive force, although we remain ideologically totally opposed to the presence of the public sector in wide areas.

Yet Libertarians are ideologically "minarchist" to a level that Liberals consider impractical even were it totally desirable. The position of most Libertarians is, to a Liberal eye, simply too extreme to be practical. To that end, I have sometimes thought of the Liberal Democrats as the political wing of the anti-authoritarian ideological spectrum.

Apart from Europe, which I have addressed in other essays, the place where Libertarians tend to attack the position of the Liberal Democrats most intensely is over the ban on smoking in public places. This, they argue, demonstrates that Liberal Democrats are au fond statist authoritarians. It is an attack that occasionally I have felt uncomfortable about. Liberal Democrats are quite fiercely against State interference in personal behaviour. For example, we oppose ID cards precisely because we believe that they infringe the principle that the state accounts to its citizens, and not the other way round. How then could the Liberal Democrats support such an infringement of personal liberty?

The answer lies in the problem of passive smoking.

The basic Liberal principle is best articulated by John Stuart Mill:

"The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right...The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign"

The problem about smoking is that even though the massive body of science says that it is a massive risk factor for poor health of all sorts of kinds, it is not illegal. Neither should it be illegal, it is a personal choice, and indeed the Liberal Democrats have often suggested that many other substances which currently are prohibited would be better legalised or at least decriminalised in order to better deal with the social problems they bring in their wake- and the Police have generally agreed. So the Lib Dems do not want to ban smoking. As far as we are concerned, an individual has every right to go to the devil in their own way- it is, quite literally your funeral, but no concern of ours.

The problem is that there is an overwhelming body of evidence that smoking is also very dangerous, to people who do not smoke. Second-hand smoke creates similar health problems for people who do not smoke as for people who do, and in public places non-smokers were being forced to face threats to their health that were substantial. Roy Castle, a non-Smoker who nevertheless died of a cancer usually associated with smoking, put down his illness to being forced to passive smoke in bars where he performed on the trumpet in his early career.

So the fact is that smokers, perfectly free to risk their own health, were also putting a risk the health of others by smoking in public enclosed places. After careful consideration the advice of health care professionals was that smoking in enclosed public places was indeed very dangerous to others.

It is for that reason, that after much discussion, Liberal Democrats - even the smokers- generally supported the public smoking ban. It was nevertheless a close debate, but as more and more countries, from the United States, Ireland and across the EU, adopted the same measures it became clear that there truly is a general global scientific and political consensus on this issue.

No mainstream political party in the UK now supports the repeal of the public smoking ban.

10 comments:

Tristan said...

There's two problems - firstly the risks of passive smoking are over stated by ideologically anti-smoking crusaders - to the extent that it is hard for me to form an opinion of what the real risks are.

Secondly, smoking is banned in private spaces. A pub is private property, its just private property where people are free to go unless the landlord says they cannot.

Nobody is forced to go there, if there's smoking allowed then they can choose not to go.
This is legislation to protect people from themselves dressed up as protection from others.

The argument that people have no choice but to work in a pub also holds no water.
If there is no other work then that is a result of hundreds of years of distortions in the market enforced by the state (see Kevin Caron's work on this).

On libertarianism and liberalism - I'd argue that libertarianism is consistent liberalism (as Benjamin Tucker said, he was a consistent Manchester man).

Cicero said...

Hi Tristan. Well as always you emerge to keep me on the straight and narrow! I think the difference between our positions is the issue of just how dangerous smoking actually is- in sum, I think it is pretty dangerous, and you are not convinced. If you take your view of the dangers, then yes I think you are right to interpret things that way. As to the issue of the Pub as private space, then I again concur, but the problem is that there is a legal tort at issue: if a landlord permits activity that is knowingly dangerous and some people are hurt, then he/she is personally liable. Therefore I would say that the issue of public access to private spaces, which is a key point in most libertarian argument is somewhat compromised.

Your points are fair, but it rests on your view of the science, and the consensus has been that smoking is so dangerous to others that it should be restricted. If you don't beleive that, then your position is correct.

KelvinKid said...

On libertarianism and liberalism - I'd argue that libertarianism is consistent liberalism

Tristan, I would argue that Libertarianism is Liberalism with the common sense taken out.

Your argument here Secondly, smoking is banned in private spaces. A pub is private property, its just private property where people are free to go unless the landlord says they cannot. is entirely disingenuous. The air in any space is held in common. If smokers smoke in it they pollute it and deny its use by others. The science indicates that the danger of passive smoking is real. Smokers can go outside to smoke and on their return can use the area without harming anyone. Or they can be even more sensible and voluntarily give up.

Bishop Hill said...

The other point is that you have only set out half of the harm principle. Mill explains it more fully

"But there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person's life and conduct which affects only himself, or, if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation. When I say only himself, I mean directly, and in the first instance: for whatever affects himself, may affect others through himself; and the objection which may be grounded on this contingency, will receive consideration in the sequel."

People going to pubs go there with "free, voluntary and undeceived consent and participation". Therefore the harm principle is not breached.

Bishop Hill said...

Kelvinkid

Do you have something to support your assertion that the air is held in common? My understanding was that the common law holds that it belongs to the property owner.

Cicero said...

Also I forgot earlier, Tristan, I would still stand by the Liberal Democrats was being on the "political wing of the libertarian axis", simply because politics is the art of the possible, and much of the Libertarian agenda, while consistent and often admirable, is simply neither electable nor enactable under current conditions.

Cicero said...

Bishop Hill- welcome indeed. The wrinkle on your wrinkle on the harm principle is the question as to whether the risks of passive smoking are explicitly understood and undertaken, and I am not sure that they were.

I guess it is quite clear how difficult it was to take the decision to support the smoking ban, and indeed by what a very narrow margin.

Bishop Hill said...

Cicero

Two things to say there:

i)Surely you're joking! You haven't been able to switch on the telly for thirty years without someone sounding off about it.
ii)If you can find a couple of people who claim not to know about it, does that suddenly allow another liberty to be shot down in flames? Our freedoms are in severe danger if such a high level of proof is demanded before we can take advantage of them. I dusted off my Bill of Rights the other day and wrote in a clause called "The Assumption of Liberty" (pace Randy Barnett) with precisely this sort of thing in mind.

Francis said...

All too often missing in the discussion of smoking is that to discharge your body's wastes, from any orifice of your body, is an act of assault if you compel others to participate in its effects without their consent. Exhaled cigarette smoke, even if gaseous, is no more acceptable to be forced on others than the solid waste of picking one's nose. Bodily wastes are usually repugnant to others.

KelvinKid said...

Bishop Hill

People going to pubs go there with "free, voluntary and undeceived consent and participation". Therefore the harm principle is not breached.

See, told you so! Liberalism without the common sense, or indeed, sense of the common good.