Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Smoking Room

Or why I think that the smoking ban isn't liberal.

Banning smoking in public places to discourage smoking is definitely not liberal. J.S. Mill said:

...the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right...

Banning smoking in public places to protect the health of bar staff appears to be liberal... but I believe it isn't. This is for two reasons:

  • There are other alternatives that are more liberal than a full ban on smoking in public places. The 'liberal' action is the most liberal out of several alternatives. There is some debate over the effectiveness of extractor fans and the danger posed to bar staff collecting glasses from smoking rooms. But alternatives do exist- incentivising smoke-free bars or paying bar staff 'danger money'. Both of these do not constrain the right of venue owners to choose what activities may occur on their property. Neither do they unduly restrict the choice of smokers.
  • Mill writes that that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others... Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. People can choose to harm themselves provided they do not harm others. People do dangerous jobs - Homer Simpson for example. Or driving instructors or miners or volcanologists or firemen. They choose these jobs and get paid extra for the risk. We wouldn't consider banning outward-bound courses or airports because instructors and pilots are in more career-related danger than actuaries. Bar staff can choose to put themselves at risk by working in a smoky environment. They may not be renumerated sufficiently for doing so and may not have a choice of whether to work in a smoking or smoke-free bar, but this is not an argument for banning smoking in public places. This is an argument for incentivising smoke-free bars and creating market conditions where bar staff are paid appropriate for the risk they take.


  • At 5:26 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    That's simply because your ignorant of political philosophy and as such are thinking, as it were, hand to mouth.

    There are two different types of 'liberty' distinguished in the literature; positive liberty and negative liberty.

    Negative liberty, freedoms garaunteed under the laws, is what you have in mind: I am free in so far as I am unrestricted by external forces such as laws or physical restraints.

    There is however another form of liberty, positive liberty, which though it has suffered a bad rap of late is slowly becoming current again which tends to be related to the promotion of certain 'freedoms to be the person one wants to be' and promotional actions on the part of the authorities to garauntee that effect.

    Consider the following examples of what might be considered positive liberty in action:

    1) When someone is intoxicated or emotionally distraught we often restrain them, because we recognise that actions they take will not be actions that the 'better angels of their nature' would lead them to do. Under your narrow conception of liberty we should not do this.

    2) When educate people we take an enabling action, allowing them to be better people. In the course of doing this, we often restrict their freedom e.g. to act out in class, because we recognise that the goal of education is of a higher importance than allowing them to be 'free' in the immediacy. Under you narrow conception of liberty we should not do this.

    3) You gave the example of dangerous jobs, but you must be aware that we do not allow people to do dangerous jobs without taking the appropriate safety precautions; nor do we allow people to work for a wage lower than minimum wage. Both of these are examples of positive liberty in practice, but under your narrow conception of liberty we should not do this.

    4) If we should allow people to do what will not harm others, doesn't this mean we should legalise cocaine, heroin, ketamine, unprescribed diazepam, bupromorphine.... in short anything we currently prevent to protect the individual from themselves. Under your narrow conception we should not do this.

    5) There is also the example of laws which prohibit behaviour which MIGHT lead to harm of others such as traffic regulations, speeding restrictions, one way streets, anti-drinking and driving legislation. We do this to avoid harm but also to protect the individual in question from breaking the law in spite of themselves. Under your narrow conception of liberty we should not do this.

    Last time we religiously followed JS Mill's ideas we ended up with the callous Lassiez-Faire policies which quite rightly got us kicked out of government. Let's not go down that road again.

    I'm not saying necessarily that we should ban smoking, but when you use words without thinking about what they actually mean or the consequences of the principles you espouse then you're no better than George Bush.

  • At 7:21 pm , Blogger Angus J Huck said...

    Sorry. This discussion has lost me.

    At worst, smoking kills. At best, it is a pestilential nuisance.

    The new legislation will eliminate this vile practice from most enclosed public spaces. This is an unqualified benefit to everyone except the tobacco companies, so how can it be illiberal?

    Surely there is nothing illiberal about protecting people from the danger and nuisance posed by unwanted ambient tobacco smoke?

    We don't allow people to defecate in the street, do we? Is that illiberal, too?

    I would go further and ban smoking in all public open spaces (like streets, parks, etc), in front of children anywhere, and by pregnant women.

    Part of me would love to outlaw smoking altogether, but the liberal in me says that people should be allowed to harm themselves as long as they don't harm innocent third parties by so doing. Smoking in private and away from children (as long as one is not pregnant) is OK by me.

    I would also ban it in prisons and mental hospitals.

    Smoking on TV and in films is problematic. We have a conflict here between artistic freedom and the need to suppress positive images of tobacco.

    Historical dramas have to have smoking (even glamorous smoking) in the interests of verisimilitude. Contemporary plays are more difficult. If only criminals, prostitutes, paedophiles, war criminals and football hooligans smoke, then that's all to the good. It sends out the right message. But should we refrain from having "normal" and "upright" people smoke just to avoid sending out the wrong message? I am very uneasy about using the arts for didactic purposes. To put it bluntly, it smells of ideological manipulation, which I find uncomfortable. Having said that, whenever someone is shown smoking on TV and is pretending to enjoy it (if anyone ever could "enjoy" such a diseased habit) I feel like chucking a brick through the screen!

    In a 100 years from now we'll be wondering in amazement how smoking ever caught on.

  • At 7:26 pm , Blogger Angus J Huck said...

    The reason we prevent people doing dangerous jobs (or driving without wearing a seat-belt) is not necessarily to protect them against themselves. Such restraints on liberty are equally defensible as a means of reducing the cost of (compulsory) insurance, which is distributed across the toality of employers (and road-users).

  • At 9:04 pm , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    1) Because the person cannot make a rational decision. It is assumed people make a rational decision to take a job. The issue is whether they are making a rational decision based on dire circumstances (e.g. desperate need for any job)

    2) You are talking about children who are below the age of consent. Hence, compulsion is appropriate

    3) Yes, but being crushed by a machine isn't intrinsic to being a factory worker or burnt to death isn't intrinsic to being a firemen. Avoiding being exposed to fire would make being a fireman rather pointless. Likewise, if you accept pub owners should be able to let people smoke and smokers should have a choice to smoke... then being exposed to some smoke is intrinsic to being a bar worker in a smoking pub. This doesn't mean that you can't create incentives for smoke-free pubs (which are safer than smoky pubs and create a market incentive for higher wages for bar workers in smoky pubs)

    4) The individual is being protected from themselves only because they are not in their right mind once they have started taking hard drugs... rather like being insane or senile.

    5) I personally am underdecided whether I would let people drink and drive... but if they killed someone come down on them like a ton of bricks. It depends on whether drinking and driving is considered a decision made whilst drunk... or before becoming drunk whilst sober.

    None of these things are about positive liberty. Positive liberty is about empowering people and so increasing their freedom NOT protecting them from themselves and so restricting it. Once you believe that sober, rational people need protecting from themselves (rather than from misfortune and inequality of opportunity, e.g. the purpose of the welfare state) then you are on a slippery slope to protecting people from chocolate orange segments and chips...

    This is an unqualified benefit to everyone except the tobacco companies, so how can it be illiberal?

    Some people want to smoke. I may find them personally stupid but if it floats their boat...

    We don't allow people to defecate in the street, do we? Is that illiberal, too?

    I didn't know that was illegal! Not something I've really formed a position on TBH, mostly because it doesn't have a large awareness-raising lobby. A bit like public nudity really...

    The reason we prevent people doing dangerous jobs

    We don't stop people doing dangerous jobs. We pay them more for doing them.

  • At 11:31 pm , Anonymous Peter Bancroft said...

    A thoughtful post. I'm a non-smoker, and as smoke around me affects my health I used to be all in favour of a total ban. I raised this once over dinner with a friend from Liberator who promptly made me justify my point. Soon afterwards I realised that my attempts at liberally justifying my thoughts simply didn't hang together. Perhaps it would be useful if others had similar experiences.

    The ongoing trend by some people (interesting to see the responses) to redefine the essential social liberal concept of positive liberty as social democracy/statism is one that I think we need to be worrying about.

    People do of course sometimes need support from the state - of all types - but it is a worrying trend inside a liberal party where more and more people feel that it is acceptable to tell consenting adults that what they want to do is wrong and simply ban them from doing it.

    I hope that support for the smoking ban and the fight against liberalised licensing hours will prove to be a temporary blip in the whipped behaviour of our MPs and that a new leadership will instill some backbone into our principles.

    PS Anon - If you're going to call someone ignorant, I'd advise not making a spelling mistake in the first sentence of your response.

  • At 1:38 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    try having severe asthma where every time someone smokes near you, you risk a fatal attack (5000 people a year die of asthma attacks), regardless of what medication you take and where the only way of minimising the risk at all is to spend £16 per month of your own money on expensive preventative inhalers because they aren't free on the NHS despite the fact it's the government which stupidly lets people smoke in the first place.

    I regard this as counting under John Stuart Mill's 'On Liberty'. It causes me harm, danger and risk every time someone else lights up and I always have to dodge smokers on train platforms therefore they should not be allowed to do it.

    Despite having regular invitations from friends and a hectic social
    life, I now also cannot go to pubs or bars with smoking sections.

    I therefore cannot wait for the smoking ban to take effect and am looking forward to shortly travelling to countries where it is already in place. New York is great, except they still smoke in the street.

    I saw a pretty girl drop a fag in the street yesterday without stubbing it out. I really wanted to tell her how completely unattractive she looked both with the fag in her hand and also later when she dropped it on the floor. Waste of time bothering with the nice clothes, nice hair and nice make up when you smoke - it will just make you stink and give you wrinkles. Fashion no-no.

    I think your thinking is a little immature on this one. I pesonally favour a total ban on tobacco imports, then we'd all be clean, healthy and happy and the ban wouldn't affect me in the slightest.

  • At 2:02 pm , Blogger dynamite said...

    I do wish we didn't have to spend so much time fishing for substantive points from people who think "smoking is disgusting, pointless and unattractive" actually forms part of an argument for banning it. I consider it fun, attractive and worthwhile but that's not the reason why banning it is a poor idea.

    No Government "stupidly lets people.." do anything, it's the basis the British construction of freedom that you can do whatever the hell you want unless explicitly forbidden. You need a damn good reason to ban anything, and as liberals the Harm Principle is a good starting point. A full ban on smoking in pubs and private clubs doesn't nearly 'pass', for the reasons explained in the initial post.


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