I hate to rag on Norah Vincent after she graciously linked to my “Dextrophobia” column, but goddamn does she get things 180-degrees wrong in her recent L.A. Times piece on smoking. A self-described libertarian, Vincent thinks opponents of Mike Bloomberg’s proposed smoking ban are abusing and misusing libertarian argument. Well, let’s see, shall we?
Let’s assume that the hyped-up risks of second hand smoke weren’t largely debunked by a largely ignored WHO report. Certainly, second hand smoke causes some risk to third parties. But Vincent then argues that smokers are violating the libertarian proscription against harming others, as though bar patrons were victims of random assault, rather than people who had knowingly and voluntarily gone into a bar whose owner allowed patrons to smoke. Bizarrely, she seems to recognize it, and then brushes the fact aside with barely an argument:
Sure, nonsmoking patrons could go elsewhere, but they shouldn’t have to. Besides, we all have our favorite bars, places that are convenient geographically or demographically. The latter is especially true of gay people. Often, going elsewhere just isn’t an option.
In other words, not only do you have a basic human right to attend a bar you like, you have a right to go there and dictate terms to both the owner and other patrons. Unlike confused smoking-fiends like me, good libertarians like Norah understand how unimportant property rights are. If you don’t like the ground rules the owner has set — and maybe the music level, volume, and decor — the owner (and all the patrons who liked the old rules) had better damn well accomodate you. After all, going somewhere else just isn’t an option (apparently nonsmokers don’t have homes in which they can have a drink), and even if it is, they “shouldn’t have to” go elsewhere. Well, why not? I was under the impression that the libertarian view was that if, for whatever reason, you don’t want to subject yourself to the behavior of others on their property, you did indeed go elsewhere. But Norah’s clarified the matter for me. Now, we’d better instruct resort owners to drain their pools, because non-swimmers who want to hang out in that cute concrete hole shouldn’t have to go elsewhere. And we’d better take all the wheels off busses, because hey, I might want to just chill in that backseat without being subject to the risks of moving in traffic. Yeah, I’m being silly, but so is what seems to be Vincent’s principle: if you provide a service, I’m entitled to benefit from it in my most preferred form.
Smoking also harms others in a second way, according to Vincent:
While it is true that smokers, when they smoke alone, harm only themselves, it is also true that the many diseases to which they often succumb because they smoke cost the public millions (in both insurance premiums and health-care services).
Now, first of all, I’m pretty sure that she doesn’t want to follow the underlying principle here to its logical conclusion: any behavior which increases your health risks may be strictly regulated, since it amounts to an imposition of costs on taxpayers. Need I even list all the activities that would suddenly come under government scrutiny? The point is not that such scrutiny would probably be applied, but that there’s got to be something wrong with an argument that would allow it. Well, in the case of insurance premiums, the problem is that insurance companies are perfectly capable of adjusting premiums to particular behaviors, and do so. In the case of publicly financed healthcare, the problem is that it allows government to unilaterally impose an obligation, to restrict otherwise private activity, by providing an uninvited benefit. The state says: in our great generosity, we have taxed all citizens to provide free healthcare. Now, whether you like this tradeoff or not, you will accept our largesse and… oh, by the way, allow us to dictate behavior to you. Otherwise, you might “impose” costs upon the public. Our generosity, in short, provides us with an excuse to limit people’s freedom. This one more decent argument against public provision of healthcare; it is a pretty poor argument for remedying an unwise policy with a rights-violating policy.
Norah Vincent is a lot smarter than this. She must really hate smokers. Or maybe she’s smoking something stronger than Marlboros.