Note: this was originally published in The Polytechnic.
A ban on tobacco was recently enacted without any noticeable resistance from the student body. It surprised me to learn that a few libertarian groups on other campuses have been opposing such bans — in contradiction of core libertarian principles. (see here and here) As a private enterprise, RPI has every right to enact such a policy, and I am personally happy the administration has done so. However, as the anti-smoking movement gains momentum we must keep in mind the proper role of government. Libertarianism says it is not morally permissible for the government to control our lifestyles and it is not the job of government to tell us what is best. The libertarian philosophy is sometimes encoded in the following moral “axiom”: “people should be free to do whatever they please as long as it does not hurt (or infringe upon the liberty) of others”. This rule is simple and reasonable but its application can be difficult in practice. (One technicality — what is the proper age of a free individual? Should children be allowed to smoke? I think not.)
Smoking bans are a perfect case in point. No one denies that smoking is dangerous and that second-hand smoke is dangerous. Smokers themselves are aware of these facts. (In their defense, they often choose to smoke for pleasure and/or mental stimulation.) Since second hand smoke is harmful, smoking should be banned in public places such as public libraries, hospitals and schools. In 2003, however, the New York State legislature enacted a ban on all indoor smoking in bars and restaurants. A restaurant is clearly a privately owned enterprise. The effects on the economy from this ban have been varied. By one account, the ban has resulted in the loss of 2,650 jobs in one year and substantial economic losses. By other accounts, the ban has had little effect on the economy (bars have compensated by moving smokers outside, and in some cases restaurants benefited). It is important to note that many restaurants were already smoke-free before the ban and that the free market was driving restaurants in this direction.
An argument in favor of bans is that some behaviors, while acted out in private, lead to increased insurance/ healthcare costs, thus hurting the public as a whole. However, a study showed that “smokers have more disease than nonsmokers, but nonsmokers live longer and can incur more health costs at advanced ages”, so ironically, a ban on smoking would actually increase healthcare costs.
What about more harmful substances, such as cocaine, ecstasy and heroin? It is clear that the highly addictive natures of these substances can make their users a threat to public health. In many cases such I think bans are justified but it is not clear where to draw the line. One thing that clearly shouldn’t be banned is marijuana. With regard to marijuana the federal government’s failed “war on drugs” has been one of the worst policies ever inflicted on the American people.
Note: part of this article was inspired by an article by Christopher Hitchens in “The Guardian” which can be read here.