A guest column was recently published on Define Liberty by Scott Weathers on Smoking Bans. Before writing this reply, I noticed many comments have already been posted to address the problems with Weathers argument. While I agree with many of the comments, I want to dive a little deeper into the fundamental problems with the Weathers’ argument.
Weathers starts off his article with this to say.
The essential question of rights is not whether they are worth protecting, but which are worth protecting... we must recognize that rights often conflict and therefore must prioritize our most fundamental, necessary rights. American University’s smoking ban does just this. (emphasis mine)
Weathers concedes his argument is utilitarian in nature given the first few sentences. While I acknowledge some libertarians consider themselves utilitarians in the “cost-benefit” persuasion, most libertarians reject this approach and adhere to the standard “non-aggression principle.” If you are unfamiliar with this term, I would recommend any YouTube by Walter Block on the NAP.
Which rights are worth protecting? This begs the question: what are rights? Where do “rights” (if they exist) originate? On the subject of rights I would recommend a recent post by Tom Woods who addressed this at a conference back in 2009.
Self-ownership and private property do not cause or create conflict. They solve the problems of conflict and scarcity. Self-ownership implies the exclusive use, control, and decision making over one-self and the property one acquires through “original appropriation” of un-owned resources or through the exchange of property titles and voluntary contractual arrangements between agents.
Upon this premise of self-ownership, norms of behavior become apparent of what is permitted and what is prohibited.
Private Property Means Owners Decide
Although many will decry AU’s smoking ban [...] Smokers can exercise their right to smoke, simply not in areas where it will harm the health of others. And very fundamentally, this is the right that must take precedence over the right to smoke wherever one pleases.
No disagreement here. If the owner of a business wants to allow people to smoke on his/her property which the owner has originally appropriated or acquired through a voluntary trade/acquisition, shouldn’t the owner possess the legal right to determine the rules (contract arrangement) and conditions of how patrons use to his/her drinking establishment? After all, the bar patrons are “guests” on the owners property.
Property owners are the ultimate decision makers of how their property is used and the norms for how visitors use their resources.
Secondhand Smoke Exposure Claims
Every year, 46,000 Americans die of exposure to secondhand smoke [...] we must use every tool we have to cut the health burden of smoking [...] these are not just statistics, these are the deaths of real people because of secondhand smoke—thousands who die because of a habit that is not their own.
The USA Today article's non-specific National Cancer Institute study misses a critical point. Of those alleged 46,000 poor souls who (allegedly) die from secondhand smoke, what type of exposure did these people have? What exactly was the cause of death? Were all of the people locked in houses bellowing with smoke 24/7? Did these people have the choice to “escape” and/or “evade” the exposure to smoke? Were any of the people former smokers who became non-smokers yet ended up living with a spouse who smoked? How many non-smoking people each year (who live in a household with a smoker) die from something else other than secondhand smoke? Were these people exposed to 100,000 hours of smoke? 1,000 hours? 1 hour? How much exposure can one tolerate before it kills them? You get my point.
The “secondhand smoke = 46,000 deaths” abstraction is effective at creating this mystical hobgoblin caricature in the minds of the people (much like other things despised by the Nanny State). Is smoking (firsthand or secondhand) healthy? No, of course not. But, the question of how much exposure is negligible versus harmful versus toxic is a very important one to ask answer.