Saturday, November 05, 2005

A Clash Of Liberalisms

The received wisdom in the press amongst opponents of a ban on smoking is that it is a controlling measure, an embodiment of the "nanny state", a restriction upon our civil rights. In short, it's an authoritarian move, demonstrating the controlling impetus of government. Unless you are a Samizdatan ideologue, this isn't actually the case. Instead, the debate around the banning of smoking largely focuses on two competing visions of liberalism; where one is degraded, it is because it has the support of some health fascists.

Firstly, to deal with the health fascists - they are the people who want to stop smoking on any grounds whatsoever, as a means of preventing smoking full stop. That is an illiberal policy; I don't think that there is any sensible liberal who would argue that it is anything other than a person's own right to rot their lungs away if they so choose. However, that's not the main focus of the debate - more important is the consideration of what smokers are doing to other people.

The tobacco lobby have been very smart in presenting smoking as a civil right. Where, though, is the consideration of the civil rights of those who don't want to have to breathe in secondhand smoke, who hate having the smell of tobacco infest their clothes to the extent that whenever it rains your clothes begin to take on a pub-like smell again? Most importantly of all, where is the consideration of people's rights not to be the victims of passive smoking, which is undoubtedly some health risk?

It comes down to differing views of liberty - positive and negative liberty. Neither should be seen as a panacea; but in this case, positive liberty (the use of the state to create opportunity for everyone) should take precedence over negative liberty (getting the state off people's backs). Yes, legislation should account for special smoking areas if they are possible or practicable. But the right of people not to have their health damaged by the actions of others must come first. Otherwise, why do we have a speed limit?

Comparisons with alcohol are spurious, too. There is nothing in the act of drinking a pint that is intrinsically dangerous to other people. It is the personal agency of someone who gets drunk that causes damage; for that, the person should be held accountable. Smoking is in and of itself dangerous to other people. That's why it's right to ban it in public places, and why it is fundamentally liberal, too.