Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ban smoking for freedom

Two political-cultural aspects of the anti-smoking policies enacted in most Western countries frequently come up for debate: freedom, and "the cult of health". In my view, contra some of my libertarian friends, the freedom to smoke is restricted by other people's freedom to breathe. As for the "cult" of health, I fully subscribe to it.

The data are in: the recently enacted bans on smoking in public places have drastically lowered the incidence of cardiovascular crises. As a heart patient, I have often felt unwelcome as well as suffocating and in mortal danger in smoke-filled public places. So I took to avoiding them and staying away from quite a few social events. That's all over now.

People who don't value freedom of expression and of association, and who don't realize their distinctive importance for liberty and democracy, have lumped them together with "freedom to smoke" as victims of "political correctness". A side-effect of such usage is that it blunts the critical impact of the ironical anti-leftist use of "political correctness", a leftist term subsequently turned around to expose the tirannical thrust of the left's hegemony. But more importantly for now, it illegitimately borrows the aura of higher freedoms to justify the petty freedom to indulge a habit that is harmful to oneself and to others.

Do people have the right to force others into sharing their own harmful puffing? No, and especially not from a libertarian viewpoint. This overpopulated world is still big enough to allow for walks in the wild where you don't impose your carcinogenous exhalation on others.

Do people have the right to harm themselves, a right that the "cult of health" seems to deny? Well, even health faddists don't usually go out of their way to force others into the gym or out of their smmoking and drinking habits. The current smoking bans still leave smokers free to smoke, viz. in the larger half of space that doesn't consist of public gathering-places. It is not forbidden to overeat, or to live without exercise or natural amounts of physical locomotion. So, the freedom to harm oneself still prevails.

But something could indeed be said for encouraging responsability by not shielding people from the consequences of their own harmful conduct. Once I had a pre-surgery talk with a cardiac surgeon, who wanted to know about my lifestyle, because he limited his services to people willing to take charge of their own health: "I do not like to use my expertise, and social security should not be made to pay, for treating people who bring it on themselves by refusing to quit smoking." I don't want to pronounce off-hand on how far this principle can be taken, but you get the idea: people should not pretend to be surprised and treated unjustly when their conduct turns out to have consequences.

And to some extent, your health isn't entirely private property either.

There does exist such a thing as collective property. Consider for example the landscape. In Belgium until recently, libertarian anarchy prevailed: you could buy real estate anywhere and build anything on it. In the neighbouring countries, and increasingly here too now, the rule is that you can only build in designated areas, and then often only in the traditional local building style. The character of the neighbourhood is a collective property that the individual is not permitted to disturb. This notion of collective property, particularly collective heritage, is probably the central bone of contention between conservatives and libertarians.

To some extent, and I admit that things are very relative in this grey area, even one's own life and health are collective property. If you take your own life, it affects not only yourself. You also deprive your parents of a son, your wife of a husband, your children of a father, your associations of a chairman or valued member, etc. Now that euthanasia is becoming mainstream (in Flanders, 2% of deaths nowadays are through euthanasia), most people don't mind if a terminal patient has his life and suffering terminated: his presence at that point doesn't make much difference, he already isn't playing his role in the family and in society anymore. But in most cases, taking your own life is a devastating intervention in other people's lives as well. Likewise though to a lesser extent, neglecting or harming your health is an infringement on a common good, a unilateral imposition of a burden on others.

That is one of the reasons for bans on hard drugs. With smoking, a total ban may go too far, but serious curbs and discouragements are entirely in order. Let us drect our libertarian energies to serious struggles, currently especially to the defence of freedom of expression, and not waste it on the freedom for smokers to drag others down with them in the effects of their own habit.


Ajay said...

Well said. It is funny to see people talk of freedoms while giving the attached resposibilities a skip.

Your argument appllies to pollution as well. Specifically air and water pollution.

B.N.Gururaj said...

Unfortunately, in the name of freedom of choice, especially for women, smoking and boozing are made to appear like signs of liberation. These practices amongst women ensures that the next generation is also affected adversely.