Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Dark Side of a Smoking Ban

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:39 AM |  

Sue Jeffers, owner of Stub and Herb's and president of Minnesotans Against Smoking Bans, passes along this piece from the December issue of Metro Doctors. It's a nice compliment to my column today -- especially so because it's not written by some crazy blogger from the mean streets of Afton, but a practicing physician -- a "refugee" from the Canadian health care system no less.
As a physician, I am poignantly aware of the ravages of smoking. I have seen more cases of vascular disease and cancer as a result of smoking than I could ever count. Smoking is a filthy and unhealthy habit.

Although smoking is reprehensible, there is one thing worthy of even greater contempt. That is government that rejects the notion of private property rights and the freedom for us to choose for ourselves how we live our lives.

The American Revolution was the high water mark in the world’s recognition of rights in the original sense of the word. Rights were originally a principle defining and sanctioning human action in a social context. The solitary man on a desert island has no rights. Rights are only relevant when living in society in the company of others. Rights define the freedom to act so long as one’s actions do not encroach upon the rights of others to do the same. For there to be an advantage to living in society as opposed to a solitary existence, humans must have rights.

John Locke helped inspire the American Revolution with his notion of individual sovereignty and the right to “Life, liberty and the pursuit of private property.” As sovereign beings, we owned our own lives. As owners of our own lives, we owned the fruits of our own labor and therefore were free to trade these fruits with others as we saw fit. Restated, we had properties rights to that which we created ourselves or that which others had voluntarily given us as a gift or through voluntary trade. The notion of property rights flows logically from the concept of self-ownership.

Rights originally merely meant liberty rights. They simply defined freedom of action. During the twentieth century the concept of rights has morphed into the concept of welfare rights. Rather than defining freedom of action, rights now define “goods and services.” Such a distorted vision of rights evades the fact that such goods and services can only appear as a result of the coerced provision of these by others. The providers have their liberty rights annihilated by those that they are forced to provide for.

Freedom, as originally conceived, was limited to the field of politics. The term meant freedom from the coercion of others. It certainly was not a claim to the property of others. The claim that “A hungry man is not free” is absurd. It confuses the political concept of freedom with the biological fact that we all have needs for food and shelter. With freedom comes responsibility for our own lives. Freedom is not a claim on others to be responsible for us. Freedom is certainly not a valid claim on others to provide us with smoke-free restaurants especially when we are free to not go there.

Freedom is the ability to make our own choices. There is no guarantee that we will make choices that ensure a successful path in life. Nor is there a guarantee that we will make choices of which others will approve. There also is no certainty that our choices may not have consequences just as the choice to smoke carries dire potential consequences.

America has strayed far from its original vision of rights defining freedom of action. We now demand universal health care, prescription drug benefits and smoke-free air in restaurants for which we have no responsibility for the mortgage.

As a newcomer to "the land of the free and the home of the brave," I am astonished that government feels that it is within their ken to use its coercive force to decide how restaurateurs utilize their own private property. As owners of private property, it is for them to decide whether or not they allow smoking, not Hennepin County. It is also for the public to endorse or refute a restauranteur's policy choice by voting with their patronage. Similarly, in a free market, workers can either negotiate their terms of employment or else offer their services elsewhere.

As thinking beings, humans have values. Values are entities that we seek to maintain or gain more of. Love, money, happiness or even the pleasure of smoking are values that an individual may hold. As sovereign individuals, we all have a hierarchy of values whether we explicitly realize it or not. As a physician, smoking is certainly not within my hierarchy of values. But not only am I a physician, I am a sovereign member of society that wants my sovereignty respected. Therefore I must respect the sovereignty of others and their right to formulate their own hierarchy of values. I may not like the choice of others to smoke or to not offer smoke-free restaurants, but it is not proper for sovereign individuals in a rights-based society to coerce one another. Such would be antithetical to the concept of political freedom. It is only proper to try and convince and persuade others of our viewpoint; not to ram it down their throat with the coercive force of government.

Those that feel it is moral to skip persuasion in favor of force may someday regret this choice when the values of others are forcefully imposed on them. The evasion of this logic is the reason why the United States of America is slowly but incrementally degenerating from a bastion of freedom to a statist hell. The fact that the U.S. has a democratically elected representative government does not necessarily prevent this decay. America was envisioned by the founders as a rights-based republic designed to protect individual rights from the tyranny of the majority or big government. Democracy is a requirement for such a republic but does not prevent its downfall if individual rights are not enshrined.

Invariably, there are those that claim it is legitimate to compel the behavior of others because society as a whole bears the cost of health care. Because taxpayers are compelled to pay for welfare state programs like Medicare and Medicaid, further compulsion is “justified” to strip people of their own choices. Compulsion begets further compulsion. Such is the downward spiral of socialism. People accept such compulsion because they have been sold a bill of goods that it is good for society. I have seen it all before. In my native land of Canada, private property rights are extremely limited in the sphere of health care and people docilely accept one and two year waits for basic health care because they have been indoctrinated that their universal health care system is good for society. But after all, even the Soviet purges were supposedly for the greater good of society.

Although it is not proper for government to legislate against smoking on private property such as restaurants, it is completely just to do so for truly public places. Such places would be municipal buildings and courthouses because these places are truly public in that they are owned by all and therefore the will of the majority should be manifest above the wishes of a minority.

As a patron of local restaurants, I would never return to one that does not provide me with a non-smoking section and would actually be more likely to go to a restaurant that is entirely smoke-free. The management of such a facility will be obligated to voluntarily comply with the wishes of a free market or suffer the consequences of going out of business. Adam Smith's "invisible hand of the market" is already fulfilling this in that restaurants without a non-smoking section are very rare. Market forces are also at work increasing the number of completely smoke-free facilities.

Whether businesses are affected positively or negatively by a non-smoking ordinance is actually irrelevant to the issue. The real issue is whether or not Hennepin county truly believes in the concept of liberty and the right for us to make our own choices and to live by the consequences of our own choices. If liberty is to remain a value of American society, liberty cannot be violated when it is seems convenient or expeditious to do so.

I came to the U.S. with my family to leave behind intrusive government and the resultant ramifications of such a social structure. If government decides upon the usage of private property, is it really private property? The concept of private property is a cornerstone of the American Revolution. The essence of why I moved to the U.S. is embodied by the values of the American Revolution. Imagine my disappointment in Hennepin County.

Lee Kurisko MD
Consulting Radiologist Ltd.
[Lee Kurisko MD is former Medical Director of Diagnostic Imaging at Thunder Bay Regional Hospital in Thunder Bay, Canada. He now works for Consulting Radiologists, Ltd. in Minneapolis.]