Monday, August 25, 2008

Smoking Bans

Smoking bans have become increasingly popular across the nation. Typically, when such bans are proposed the debate centers on the rights of smokers versus non-smokers. The rights of the impacted business owners are generally a secondary issue.

The truth is, in this context the only rights that are relevant are those of the business owners. They have a right to offer the type of environment they choose. If they wish to allow smoking or ban it, that is a choice that they should be permitted to make without interference from the government.

Patrons—both smokers and non-smokers—will not have their rights infringed in either case. Rights are a sanction to act without interference from others, so long as the mutual rights of others are respected. Rights pertain to freedom of action, not a guarantee that one’s action will provide the desired results.

In the case of smoking, patrons are free to choose which establishments they will visit. If smoking offends them, they can choose those places which prohibit smoking. Smokers remain free to visit places that permit smoking. All parties retain their rights.

While this story comes from West Virginia, it contains some interesting comments on smoking bans.

Nobody's going to tell Kerry "Paco" Ellison's customers they can't smoke at his bar. The Black Hawk Saloon is Ellison's bar, and he'll run it as he sees fit.

"If I don't want to pray, I don't go to church," Ellison said. "If you don't want to smoke, don't come in here."

Today, Ellison and at least a dozen other bar owners across the county defiantly encouraged their patrons to smoke in violation of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's six-week-old smoking ban.

These bar owners deserve praise for refusing to passively accept a violation of their rights. But is often the case, their defiance is less principled than it might appear.

Ellison said he's sick and tired of playing by the rules while his competitors secretly allow their customers to light up. He's called the Health Department to complain, but nothing is done, he said.

"Either rescind the order or enforce it," Ellison said. "Either make it happen or let it go. I want a level playing field."
In other words, if the ban were enforced, Ellison would have fewer problems with it. He just wants the law to be applied equally. While it is certainly reasonable to expect the law to be applied equally to all, the victims of unjust laws should not be demanding that the injustice be applied equally. They should be fighting the injustice.

This type of unprincipled opposition is a large part of why such laws get passed. Often, some business owners would like to ban smoking in their establishment, but fear that they will lose business. So they support a government imposed ban. This, they declare, will level the playing field. This reminds me of a lyric from The Trees, by Rush:

So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
"The oaks are just too greedy;
We will make them give us light."
Now there's no more oak oppression,
For they passed a noble law,
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, axe, and saw.

Such bans ultimately harm everyone, including non-smokers. By advocating that government impose restrictions and controls on businesses, they implicitly accept similar controls and restrictions on themselves. They cannot reasonably advocate violating the rights of others and not expect others to advocate violating their rights.

This is what occurs when principles are rejected or ignored. Each issue is treated in isolation, as if there are no wider implications or consequences. But self-induced blindness will not prevent those consequences from being made manifest.

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