Wednesday, January 26, 2005

COLUMN -- Smoking ban debate is about personal liberty

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:25 AM |  

Posted on Wed, Jan. 26, 2005

It is the best of causes, it is the worst of causes, it is motivated by sincerity, it is motivated by expediency, it is a matter of principle, it is a matter of "common sense," we are all heading down the road to serfdom, we will all die coughing and wheezing on the road now traveled — in short, the Legislature is in session, debating a statewide smoking ban, and the "noisiest authorities" insist that, for good or evil, only superlatives be applied to legislative judgment.

It is the 229th year of the American experiment and some tremble still at the consequences of liberty. They consistently barter individual freedom for the chimera of "collective public good." Case in point — the collective preference for a smoking ban on bars and restaurants that strips autonomy from individuals, who uncoerced, would seek employment at and patronize those private establishments.

That brings us to the tale of two legislators who exemplify the best and worst of these times.

As is depressingly frequent, our tale begins with state government. In August 1998, the Ramsey County District Court approved the state's plan for administering significant dollars from the Minnesota tobacco lawsuit through a nonprofit corporation, the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco.

Can it still seem "magic" that a state-seeded agency planted in a bed of power and watered with public money would grow an education charter into an enforcement beanstalk?

Inevitably MPAAT funds found their way to local smoking ban initiatives, most notably in Duluth. Despite objections by Attorney General Mike Hatch that MPAAT was inappropriately using state money, a tepid 2002 court decision only delayed MPAAT political activism.

In 2003 Rep. Tim Wilkin, R-Eagan, was one of eight state-appointed members of the 19-member MPAAT board of directors. Opposed on principle to forming MPAAT, Wilkin nonetheless felt that given the reality, MPAAT's chartered mandate to help people voluntarily quit smoking was worthwhile. He agreed to serve.

Then despite objections by Wilkin and others, MPAAT announced grants of up to $1.5 million for political action activities.

MPAAT's policy, wrote Wilkin in his MPAAT resignation letter to House Speaker Steve Sviggum, "will allow the organization to fund direct lobbying efforts of its own on questions in front of the Legislature," an action Wilken characterizes a "fundamentally unfair" use of taxpayer dollars and a "conflict of interest" for legislators sitting on the MPAAT board.

Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, who will be a sponsor of the statewide smoking ban bill this session, sees no such conflict of interest. However, as a matter of expediency and appearance and "to avoid the distractions of a manufactured issue," he followed Wilkin with a resignation from MPAAT. Dibble construes that taxpayer money isn't at issue because MPAAT funding comes from the tobacco industry lawsuit.

Contrasted with Wilkin, who opposes a statewide smoking ban on principle, Dibble holds a "common sense" (tempered by public opinion) approach to government intervention. It is "inhumane" to "deny" nonsmokers access to employment and enjoyment of "quasi-public" bars and restaurants despite the rights of proprietors and patrons, he said.

And there shorn of its rhetoric is the naked crux of the smoking ban debate. It's not a debate about public health. It's not about economic consequences. It's about our essential understanding of the principles of liberty and limited government.

Either you believe there is a fundamental right of personal autonomy — defined by court cases like Roe v. Wade (legalizing abortion) and Lawrence v. Texas (striking down sodomy statutes) — or you believe there is no end to the inequalities of fortune that must be rectified by the brutal force of government.

Either you believe that constitutional principles limit government action or you believe that "common sense" is the criterion of constraint, and there is no "rule of law" protecting your private life from government intervention.

Either you care, or you don't.

It is always incumbent upon a free people to defend individual autonomy. In a free society, some will always do things that seem morally reprehensible, stupid, and that yes, sometimes, even defy "common sense." But when we resist acting from fear and envy and initiate action in defense of liberty, and insist that our legislators do the same, that is the "far, far better thing that we do."

UPDATE: In one of those "dark of night" moves, the House scheduled a minimum notice public hearing on the smoking ban bill for this morning at 10:15, Room 10 of the State Office Building. More posts following the hearing.