I got into a bit of a debate last week with some friends when I tried to draw a comparison between “voting for proposition 8” and “voting to ban public outdoor smoking”. We went back and forth on a few issues, but the essence of the argument, from my standpoint, goes something like this:
- In this country, one ought to consider individual liberty as a major good, and infringing upon that good requires substantive harm before it is justified.
- “Cap-C” conservatives (in the case of proposition eight) are not examining this trade-off.
- “Cap-L” liberals often also fail to examine this trade-off (in the case of public outdoor smoking bans).
- Ergo, the only real difference between bad trade-off analysis between the left and the right is what people find annoying or unacceptable, and the “harm” argument is usually a bunch of B.S.
- People on the left who don’t actually examine these trade-offs therefore ought not to complain about people on the right not doing it either.
Of course, the other side was arguing that secondhand smoke is a quantifiable bad thing, as it causes physical harm. Their argument went something like this:
- Conservatives, by banning gay marriage, are infringing upon the rights of gay people (infringing upon individual liberty). This isn’t okay, because allowing gay people to get married doesn’t really harm the conservatives.
- Liberals, by banning public smoking, are infringing upon the rights of smokers, but this isn’t equivalent because (a) secondhand smoke causes actual damage (b) smokers infringe upon the rights of non-smokers when they light up where those non-smokers can be impacted by their smoke, and (c) people shouldn’t smoke anyway.
- Oh, and Pat, you’re being pendantic and unreasonable and kind of an ass because civil rights for gay people don’t even come close to inconveniencing smokers.
I’ll of course accept the charge of being pedantic… but the recent outdoor smoking ban in Pasadena effectively makes it illegal for smokers to smoke… anywhere… outdoors in public property. That’s essentially saying, “We don’t want you in our city.” Well, as much as I find some people disagreeable, in my opinion banning them from your city is just plain old tyrrany of the majority, and that’s just not okay.
Now, here’s my problems with the rest of the rebuttal. Let’s take (a) first. The fact that secondhand smoke causes actual damage should (in my opinion) be put in the proper context. Certainly, secondhand smoke has been shown to be an actual health hazard. But… how much of a health hazard is outdoor smoking and the resulting exposure to secondhand smoke, really? Is it a meaningful health hazard? If it is a meaningful health hazard… how much does it compare to other activities that people might participate in that are just as much (if not more) of a health hazard? Most importantly -> Are you comfortable establishing this level of a health hazard as a baseline for “at this point, we get to infringe upon your liberty”? I did a bit of research over the last week and I found out some interesting notes. Did you know that 3,812 people died in southern California last year due to particulate pollution? That means that more people died in southern California due to smog than died in all of Germany (3,300) due to secondhand smoke (Germany’s population is about 82 million, they have a lot of smokers, and until recently as near as I can tell not much in the way of indoor bans and those have been overturned).
Now of course this lacks anything resembling rigor, because I don’t have the time to make a real study out of it, but it seems evident that (given the fact that a substantial portion of those secondhand smoke deaths are going to be due to repeated and constant exposure) the fact that you drive a car in Los Angeles is much, much more likely to contribute to someone’s death than if you occasionally light up a cigarette outdoors and someone gets a two minute exposure to your secondhand smoke. Hell, people die from peanut allergies, but we don’t ban people from eating peanuts in public. About 3,000 people die nationwide every year from drowning, but we don’t ban pools and lakes and swimming pools (although the last is ridiculously over-regulated).
Corey also pointed out, “Well, one certainly can’t compare *driving* to *smoking*, because there are benefits you get out of driving, but nobody can claim benefits from smoking.” While in some sense I agree, the problem I have with this train of thought is that you’re getting down into things that are so subjective that it makes it nearly impossible to quantify. You don’t actually *need* a car. They’re convenient as hell, but even here in Los Angeles it’s certainly possible to take public transportation to work and back (it might take you a very long time, ’tis true). You get benefits out of having access to a car, but some people get benefits out of smoking (the smokers get enjoyment, the tobacco growers get revenue, the convenience store owners get additional sales of soda pop and candy, etc.) So while I personally get advantages from owning a car, and I don’t get advantages from smoking (not being a smoker anymore and not selling them or growing tobacco or whatnot)… that doesn’t mean that I should be examining “smoking” vs “driving” entirely through the lens of “me”. Remember, we all agree that liberty is a big important thing here in the U.S., right?
The argument against (b) is pretty straightforward… you don’t have any more right to 10 square feet of pavement than anybody else does, and if someone standing in that square chooses to light up a cigarette, they have just as much of a right to do that as someone does to talk on a cell phone… given that the “harm” argument is not really valid. Finally, of course, the argument against (c) is also pretty straightforward -> we’re talking about liberty here, and you don’t get to decide what is or isn’t good for somebody else. Sure, they may be giving themselves cancer. They might also really enjoy their cigarette, and if you figure you’re going to die eventually anyway from something, smoking isn’t any more irrational than extreme sports or doing anything else equally stupid that might kill you but you find fun.
“But Pat,” came in an additional point, “people who smoke leave cigarette butts everywhere, and littering is bad for the environment.” Sure, this is true… and in some cases, I’ll even take it as an additional justification for banning outdoor smoking in some areas. But you can make the same argument against soda cans and individual-sized bags of chips or candy bars. Heck, there are people in my neighborhood that still won’t clean up after their dog, but that doesn’t mean that I’d agree to ban urban dog ownership. Increase the fine on not cleaning up after your dog, or enforcing littering fines on people who toss their butts… I’m okay with that, absolutely.
My point is this: if you’re going to claim that people pass judgement based upon the fact that something offends them, don’t do it yourself… dressing up things that offend you as, “Well, this is actually dangerous” isn’t meaningful unless that danger is something that is reasonably comparative to other things you’re willing to ban. Be honest about harm. It’s tough; it’s easy for us to overplay things that annoy us as being harmful and things that don’t as being beneficial. But that’s the price you need to be willing to pay if you want to consider living in a free society.