Second-Hand Socialism

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom

Second-Hand Socialism

by Ari Armstrong, November 20, 2002

A new public-health menace is threatening Colorado communities. Some busy-body activists are empowering armed police agents to force others to obey their commands. These socialists are trampling property rights and imposing costs on others in exchange for personal gain and power.

Fort Collins was the latest Colorado city to vote for smoking bans at most locations open to the public. Louisville banned smoking at all businesses, Boulder and Aspen banned smoking everywhere except in totally enclosed smoking rooms, and several other localities banned smoking except in bars. A group called Smoke Free Denver is trying to ban smoking there. Some want a state-wide ban -- states like California and Florida already have anti-smoking laws.

The core assumption behind the movement to ban smoking is that people are just too stupid to live their own lives, so the social elites must step in and force the ignorant masses to do what only the elite knows is best. It's not enough that anti-smoking activists attempt to persuade others to change their behavior -- they pass socialist laws enforced by men with guns. The message is clear: "quit smoking, OR ELSE!"

Though the debate over smoking bans is a surface-level political issue, it involves fundamental conceptions of human nature. The advocates of property rights and free markets -- the libertarians -- view human beings as basically responsible for their own lives. People are capable of making rational decisions, and they should bear the consequences of their decisions, good or bad. Property rights are an expression of the sovereignty of the individual. Individual rights create a sphere of autonomy, a sphere in which a person can live free from the forcible interference of others.

The advocates of smoking bans view people basically as pawns of forces out of their control. People cannot be trusted to do the right thing without the forcible intervention of the elite class. The state can violate the property rights of the individual whenever state agents believe it to be in the "public interest" -- whatever they think that is. People should not have the sphere of autonomy created by property rights and free markets; they should be subjected to the dictates of others.

Libertarians believe smoking policies should be left up to individual business owners, service employees, and customers. Smoking-ban advocates believe smoking policies should be centrally imposed by the state and backed up by physical force.

Here's how the "personal responsibility model" handles the issue of smoking. The owners of restaurants, bars, and other establishments have the right to set policy inside their businesses just as homeowners have the right to set policy in their homes. If you want to put a "no-smoking" sign on your front door, that's your right. Business owners have the same rights.

Customers are free to choose whether to do business with any particular establishment. If you don't like to be around smokers, then by all means don't do business where smoking is allowed. But you have no right to interfere with the voluntary agreement of others at the establishment.

Similarly, people are free to choose where they want to work. If you want to work in a relatively risk-free environment, then it's your right to seek such employment. If, on the other hand, you want to work in relatively risky environments, such as the military, mines, transportation, farming, or smoke-filled bars, that too is your right.

Some service employees choose to smoke and willingly accept the risks of smoking. They are not at all concerned about the effects of second-hand smoke. If the smoking banners are correct that a smoke-free work environment is more pleasant and healthy for non-smokers, then that will drive a wage differential based on smoking policy.

Similarly, if the smoke banners are correct that bans are in the economic interests of bar and restaurant owners, then the marketplace will automatically cater to the preferences of different customers. Indeed, the web pages of the smoke banners are filled with the testimonials of bar and restaurant owners who love the smoke-free environment and would maintain it with or without a law. As more people give up smoking, more bars and restaurants will willingly go smoke-free.

But the social elite refuses to rely on persuasion and market forces. They instead rely on armed enforcers to impose their will on others. For our own good, of course. We might call this the "state responsibility model."

The smoke banners argue the "tobacco lobby" spends money to keep smoking legal. But the facts of the case must be evaluated independently of financial motives -- that's a fundamental rule of logic. As hard as it is for some anti-smokers to believe, smokers basically smoke because they want to. Yes, nicotine is addictive, but addiction is more a matter of personality than the substance involved.

Apparently realizing their argument that customers of bars and restaurants are too stupid to make wise decisions is too obviously patronizing, the smoke banners are now emphasizing the argument that smoking hurts service workers. That's a more sympathetic case for many voters.

But the notion that employees are the helpless victims of their greedy employers is a myth rooted in fallacious Marxist exploitation theory. In fact, employees wield enormous power on the market. If service workers on the whole don't like to work in smoky environments, then they will drive up the cost (in wages) their employer must bear for allowing smoking. As noted, people accept higher wages for more risk in all kinds of careers. That's a free choice. Some will flatly refuse to work in a smoky environment, and it's their right to quit and seek employment elsewhere. In some cases, business owners may seek compromise -- say, by installing a ventilation system. The smoke-banners claim ventilation doesn't solve the problem, but why should they be able to forbid any experimentation with alternatives?

Ironically, the reason the exploitation theory of markets has survived for so long is that state control has led to actual exploitation. Statists pass laws that ruin market interaction, then they blame the resulting failure on markets. The only thing that makes the smoke-banners' argument about social workers sound plausible is that poor people often have a tough time finding good jobs. But the only reason poor people have difficulty finding employment is that the busy-body socialists have ruined the employment market for poor people.

Business restrictions hurt the poor the most. Those with big bucks, legal expertise, and personal lobbyists can cut through red tape or simply evade it. The poor are left without alternatives. The minimum wage law affects only the poor by keeping some of them out of a job and preventing them from gaining useful experience. The Social Security tax is regressive and it destroys the ability of poor people to save. Property taxes, which poor people often pay through rent, appear to be progressive but are in fact regressive. Dollar for dollar, the rich get more for their property taxes than the poor do, as a visit to schools in different areas will demonstrate. Drug prohibition, another Nanny-State project imposed for our own good, destabilizes poor neighborhoods, creates insane levels of violence, and imprisons a large minority of blacks.

Service workers are often at the lower end of the economic scale. Yes, they sometimes suffer, but not because of their employers. They suffer because advocates of the "state responsibility model" have hurt them with unjust laws. Service workers have been hurt because economic choices have been taken away from them. They will benefit by regaining those choices, not by losing more.

To be honest, I hate cigarette smoke. It makes my eyes water and my clothes stink. I have intentionally avoided smoke-filled bars. In fact, I'm something of a "health nut." I gave up dairy and beef in exchange for more fruits and vegetables. Hell, I even buy soy fake-burgers and put sunflower seeds on my spinach salads. I have attempted, unsuccessfully so far, to persuade a couple friends to quit smoking.

I don't like second-hand smoke, and I take steps to avoid it. But the potential harms of second-hand smoke pale in comparison to the damage of second-hand socialism.

The Colorado Freedom