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Nanny state is out of control
Just about the only shibboleth left in American society is the one against
smoking tobacco. Smoking marijuana is fine: Several states have already
legalized, by popular referendum, its use as an all-purpose medical nostrum,
and many of the nation’s rarer spirits have come out in favor of
decriminalizing it altogether.
Consensual sex of any kind, Mr. Clinton has taught us, is nobody’s
business but the participants’, even if it occurs in the Oval Office during
a phone conversation between the president and a congressman on the subject of
troops for Bosnia. Even massive tax evasion, followed by flight to Switzerland
and renunciation of American citizenship, qualifies for a presidential pardon
if enough money is contributed to the Democratic National Committee and the
Clinton Presidential Library in Arkansas.
But the foes of tobacco march on, from triumph to triumph. In the entire
state of California, there is no indoor public space in which smoking is
permitted. And in the Washington suburb of Friendship Heights, Md., the
crusade has now taken its next logical step: Under a new Montgomery County
ordinance, smoking is banned outdoors on all public sidewalks and grassy areas
and in all public parks in the Village of Friendship Heights. First-time
violators will be issued a warning. Repeat offenders will be fined $100 per
violation. To Dr. Alfred Mueller, the mayor of Friendship Heights, “It’s a
public health issue. Many nonsmokers have medical conditions that are worsened
by even a small amount of inhaled smoke.” And if the ban “prevents even a
few adolescents from becoming addicted,” it will be worthwhile, he adds.
There is, of course, not the slightest evidence that any nonsmoker has ever
been injured, or so much as a single adolescent ever become addicted to
tobacco, by virtue of the minuscule quantities of tobacco smoke that may exist
in the breezes that waft through America’s public parks.
But foes of tobacco are immune to the normal rules of argumentation; their
sheer rectitude exempts them from the ordinary requirements of proof.
Fortunately, a resident of Friendship Heights, Jacobo Rodriguez by name, is
affiliated with the Cato Institute, a respected libertarian think tank that
devotes itself to combating the excesses of Big Government. So Mr. Rodriguez
(a nonsmoker, by the way) has brought a lawsuit against Friendship Heights,
charging that it has no power to levy penalties on those who violate the ban.
About the time you read this column, a county judge will conduct a hearing on
the question. Whichever way the court decides, the case undoubtedly will be
Perhaps you are a nonsmoker and think you have no interest at stake here.
But did you know that Dr. Kelly Brownell of the Yale Center on Eating and
Weight Disorders wants foods to be graded by their fat content and taxed
accordingly? On a PBS broadcast, he complained that even poor people can
afford Big Macs and french fries. We should tax Big Macs, he said, so the poor
can no longer afford them — for their own good, of course. So, if you enjoy
a Big Mac occasionally, be warned: They’re coming after you, too. The sad
truth is that there are many people who get their kicks out of seizing the
moral high ground (in this case, opposition to smoking tobacco) and then
beating the daylights out of people who refuse to toe the line.
But is this a prescription for civility in public affairs? Robert Levy, a
senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, put the key
point very well indeed: “Ordinarily,” he said, “we rely on common
courtesy and mutual respect when individuals relate to one another. But nosy,
intrusive government has polarized the dispute between smokers and
non-smokers. As a result, venom has replaced respect and obstinate behavior
has replaced common courtesy. It is government, not secondhand smoke, that has
poisoned the atmosphere.”
William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for
the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.