Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Tell me again why we should be concerned about government power

Posted by Craig Westover | 2:09 PM |  

This morning I attended the Health Policy and Finance Committee Meeting at the State Capitol. Today's agenda was the introduction of the "Freedom to Breathe Act of 2005," the statewide smoking ban bill, not to be confused with Emma Lazarus' "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

The "New Colossus" here is a state government that sees no need to mention individual rights and the responsibility of individual choice -- no need to mention freedom except to dismiss it as irrelevant.

Pro-bill and anti-bill speakers were each given 45 minutes to present their cases. With the exception of some enlightening scientific refutation of the overblown health risk of second hand smoke by author Edmund Contoski (more in a separate post) there was little new information presented by either side in the controversy that you can't find on this site.

But I was struck by a blinding glimpse of the obvious -- the reason why government power is so insidious.

The proponents of the bill spoke first. On the printed agenda that was handed out at the meeting, 13 pro-bill speakers were listed plus the two chief sponsors of the bill, Representatives Doug Meslow and Ron Latz. After opening remarks explaining the bill by Rep Latz, Rep Meslow reserved his time to speak. He then managed the list of proponents.

He did an excellent job.

The bill proponents built a good story. They had a mix of health care professionals and private citizens, restaurant owners and employees. They had an asthma victim who is also a bartender in smoking bar, a waitress who must force herself to be pleasant to customers in the smoking section although she is on the verge of vomiting. They took testimony from a woman who said little, but testified wearing an oxygen device required because of smoking-related causes. They put a man before the committee to recall the death of his non-smoking wife who died of lung cancer; she had worked in a smoky environment. And they wrapped up with Pat McKone of the American Lung Association, who characterized the opponents yet to speak with the skill of a trial lawyer.

It was theater at its best. Each speaker built on the testimony of the previous one. It was clear,these proponents were not chosen at random, but were bullet points in a logical argument. Ignoring the lack of substance and avoidance of the real issues, it was very well done.

Then came the opponents.

I do not mean to minimize the presentation of any one speaker, but without a central organization, the "theater" was haphazard. On the printed agenda there were only three opponents to the bill listed -- Hospitality Minnesota, the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association and the Mayor of New Ulm -- so with agenda in hand, it looked like a debate between private citizens, health care workers, bartenders and servers versus "Big hospitality." Although several others spoke against the bill, small business owners among them, they were not on the agenda -- likely because the word of the hearing didn't get out until late last night. (I got a call about 7:30 or so).

Whereas Rep. Meslow ended on cue with a neatly tied summary, the opponents of the bill ended by being cutoff with some people still waiting to speak.

The point is, on the one hand you have a government with all the power, all the control. On the other, citizens trying to defend their right to do business -- business that poses no threat to anyone without his or her consent. There were no Big Tobacco people opposing the bill, no well-organized opposition. And it showed.

Hopefully the committee will be smart enough to put the story together (and pigs will fly), but the disparity of the resources when government versus the rights of the people was, today, truly frightening.