Smoking and the Harm Principle

I thank Pietro of The SmarterCop for highlighting Catallarchy on his blog in response to our entry in the New Blog Showcase. Scrolling down his front page, I noticed a post in response to the Florida smoking ban.

Now, some of you may complain that this is just another effort to chip away at individual rights... but all you libertarians, listen up: one of the fundamental things I hear about personal liberty is that people have the freedom to do what they want in their own space.... unless it infringes on others' space, rights, comfort, or way of life. It's not that smokers can no longer smoke; they simply can't smoke in enclosed spaces where it presents immediate and unavoidable discomfort to nonsmokers.[...]

Should the government have to step in to prevent people from inconveniencing others? To the extent that it does not violate the rights of every individual, I believe it should. Ordinarily, I don't know many smokers who have a major problem with the law - they show enough common courtesy to understand that what they do is not particularly palatable to many people, and make the necessary adjustments.

A similar thought is echoed on Arthur Silber's blog The Light of Reason by a commenter in response to a post about the British Chief Medical Officer's call for a total ban on smoking in public.

I would agree with you on the food issue because when someone else stuffs their face full of fatty, unhealthy food, it doesn't intrude on my rights in the least. But, a smoker doesn't just ingest the smoke into his own lungs; He inflicts a great deal of smoke on those around him. When someone is smoking next to me in public (a restaurant for example) their smoke is extremely intrusive on my rights. Not because I think it may give me cancer neccesarily, but because, amongst other things, it's annoying and smelly, it irritates my eyes and throat, the smell sticks to my close and my hair, and it just plain ruins my appetite if I'm in a restaurant. Whether I'm sitting in a restauant or even outdoors in a public space (a park for example), second-hand smoke is not a minor annoyance, it's a large one. If one wants to smoke on his own private property where no one else is affected, who doesn't want to be, then of course he has that right.

Although both of these statements express the 'harm no others' principle, they are framing the principle poorly. Underlying both statements is a lack of concern for the property rights of the owner of the restaurant. The debate is not about smokers vs. non-smokers, although in the binary left-right axis of modern political culture, it is no surprise that it is conceived that way. Rather, the debate is about control of an individual's property by himself vs. by the mob. The real question is, "Should owners of private property be able to decide whether or not their guests are allowed to smoke on their property?"

A restaurant is emphatically not public property. You might reply, "But when many people patronize the restaurant, it becomes public property." No, it is simply private property with many people on it. The owner of said property can set any standard for appropriate or inappropriate behavior by which he deems his guests worthy of admission, whether it is the ability to smoke, a certain dress code, or an affinity for the music of Britney Spears. That is the consequence of property rights.

If you are a non-smoker and you do not like cigarette smoke, patronize a different restaurant. If you believe that there will be no restaurants that do not allow smokers, start one yourself. It is likely that you will have many customers if the support for such smoking bans on private property is an indicator. But just as you would not demand that my carpeting be a different color when you are a guest at my house, you do not have the 'right' to impose your rules by force on another peron's property.

For someone to step onto another's property and demand that the owner set the rules for his liking is rude. For the guest to actually use government force to make it happen is an act of aggression and a violation of the owner's rights. It is an infringement of the freedom from violence that is owed to the individual due to his nature as a man.

By framing the issue this way, it becomes irrelevant whether or not second-hand smoke is harmful. It becomes a question of rights and voluntary interactions rather than a question of science.

Since we've been on the topic of constitutions lately, this is another example of one of the Constitution's biggest flaws - the lack of an explicit statement upholding property rights. Today, the term property rights is often put in scare quotes implying either that they do not exist or that they are subordinate to 'human rights' when the reality is that essentially, all natural rights are property rights, including ownership of the self.

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I was listening to NPR this

I was listening to NPR this morning where they interviewed some govt weenie in Montgomery County, MD where a smoking ban is about to be put in place.

Her logic was that 90% of the people in the county were non-smokers therefore there is a huge market for smoke-free restaurants (which I agree) but that is how she justified the new regulation, which makes no sense if there is already a market for it.

In the future, I think the smoking bans are something big govt proponents will point to and say, "Look, the govt can alter social behavior in a positive way!" I think this has huge implications for the future power of the Religious Right and Interactive Propaganda (anti-gun, etc) folks.

Her logic was that 90% of

Her logic was that 90% of the people in the county were non-smokers therefore there is a huge market for smoke-free restaurants (which I agree) but that is how she justified the new regulation, which makes no sense if there is already a market for it.

In essence, she has accepted mob rule as just.

In the future, I think the smoking bans are something big govt proponents will point to and say, "Look, the govt can alter social behavior in a positive way!" I think this has huge implications for the future power of the Religious Right and Interactive Propaganda (anti-gun, etc) folks.

I was thinking more of the Left actually.

Whatever the case, it's an

Whatever the case, it's an obvious absurdity to claim that the number of non-smokers is identical to the number of people who support the ban. But if, for the sake of argument, it was, then their preference for smoke-free bars and restaurants could and would long since have been revealed. In fact, a non-smoking restaurant could rather nearly drive everyone else into the dirt if such a desperate desire for smoke-free eateries and bars existed. The very fact that this law is deemed necessary by its supporters at all stands as evidence that it is both unjust AND unnecessary.

Oops - I misunderstood the

Oops - I misunderstood the NPR person's meaning (just vs. necessary).

There is a related

There is a related discussion occurring over on Talkleft that started as a discussion of the rejection of the proposed ban in Colorado. The following is a comment (slightly modified) that I posted there that is relevant here as well.

As a nonsmoker I enjoy all the non-smoking establishments available to me just as many of you. However, I think a smoking ban can be justified only in public spaces such as parks, sidewalks, streets, gov't offices, and such other places that are commonly owned.

Non-public places must be well labeled by their owners as smoking or non-smoking. You choose to frequent or work there. And no children under the age of consent allowed in a smoking environment (makes for an interesting conflict in the home of smokers).

I suspect that, with the possible exception of the bars and strip joints, that we end up with a primarily non-smoking environment.

I just came back from a

I just came back from a smoke-free bar in Arlington, VA called Clarendon Ballroom. One of my favorite bands, Fighting Gravity, was playing. The rooftop allows smoking while the inside is smoke-free. Interestingly enough, many more people were in the smoking area of the bar than the smoke-free area even though they weren't smoking.

Happy Independence Day!