One Rant at a Time

Whatever heaves into view........better keep its head down.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Nanny Knows Best

The debate over the smoking-in-public law is the best thing that's happened to this country for a generation. Notice I said debate. Not the law itself. It's not just a matter of whether the government has the right to tell us what to do in the comfort of our local pub or club. There's a really important principle at stake here.

Back in the 80s, when the Conservatives were in power and stripping away the layers of regulation and state ownership that they claimed was over-burdening the country and costing us all far too much, they talked a lot about the individual, about choice and about the role of the state. They told us that the government wasn't there to make our choices for us, that we were all grown-up enough to make our own decisions, and they were simply helping us have that freedom to choose.

And, among other things, the Conservatives decided to ban smoking in certain areas, or rather, to allow public venues to ban smoking in certain areas, as long as they made provisions for those who did wish to smoke. The result was that we had a choice, more or less, to smoke or not when we were out and about.

That seemed to me to be a pretty fair treatment of both smokers and non-smokers. Each side got to exercise its choice, its freedom.

Now, with the new legislation that's set to ban smoking in all public places, the Labour government has decided that no, we're not old enough to exercise our right to choose, and that Momma State is going to tell us where we can or can't light up. You could almost compare the attitude to smoking with the view they had on fox-hunting: the hunting itself isn't illegal, but the effects on the fox are a severe restriction of its liberties.

And this is the point around which the debate centres: Should our rights be preserved even when exercising them impacts the rights of those around us? Or, as one of those great liberal thinkers (Mill? Bentham? I forget) might have said: Does my right to swing my arm end where your nose begins?

Clearly, the Conservatives trusted to our own judgement as to where our individual rights intersected with those of other people. And maybe they were naive to do so. Labour, on the other hand clearly doesn't trust us at all, and believes it needs to muscle in and stand in between my hand and your nose.

But what's the real reason behind the blanket ban? Does Labour believe that it's saving smokers from themselves by forcing them into some sort of tobacco ghetto where they have to cluster round the back of buildings in the rain to have a quick puff, or is it more interested in protecting non-smokers from the effects of passive smoking?

By making smoking an inconvenience, by forcing people to leave their table or friends and have a quick drag outside, is Labour hoping that we'll cut down our consumption or even quit? And does Labour even have the right to do that?

It seems almost as if Labour has looked at both sides of the question - the rights of non-smokers to enjoy a smoke-free environment versus smokers' right to light up whenever they wish - and come down on the side of non-smokers. After all, didn't the previous smoking law - designated non-smoking areas - answer the question of choice and rights?

This new blanket ban has the effect of reducing smokers to second-class citizens. Having designated non-smoking areas apparently doesn't sufficiently protect the respective rights of smokers and non-smokers, so government has to tip the scales a little.

We hear countless stories of anti-smoking prejudice in the US, where insurance companies will refuse to underwrite smokers' life-insurance policies, for example, or where companies will refuse to employ smokers. Restaurants there have banned smoking altogether. Sure, smokers are more likely to develop cancer, have to quit their jobs and start paying some hefty medical bills, but isn't that a choice? Rather than reject smokers out of hand, shouldn't insurance companies be allowed to charge higher premiums? While insurance isn't exactly a right, shouldn't it be available to all, just tailored to meet the risks of the individual? And shouldn't that be protected by government somehow?

What's happening here is that modern-day government is in the process of modifying the concept of individual rights and freedoms. This is the thin edge of the wedge, folks.


At 8:04 PM, Blogger Cocaine Jesus said...

i hate smoking. i hate it with a passion BUT, i am fully prepared to allow others to do just what they like and i fully accept that other folk like to have a puff. we must not get too puritanical about smoking.


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