By Jay Hansen
A committee in the Oklahoma House of Representatives just recently passed a bill that would allow local governments to ban smoking in public places. I wanted to put the news story up on my website, but didn’t have the room because it was such a large news day. Interestingly enough, though, that was also the day I started doing research for my piece on Rick Santorum. In my research, I came across a new series of videos on YouTube sponsored by a libertarian organization known as Learn Liberty (here’s their YouTube channel), and specifically, I found one about bans on public smoking. Here’s the exact video:
At first, like most libertarian arguments I hear, it made a lot of sense. After I took some time to think about it, though, there were a few key elements with which I took issue. In this video, Professor Aeon Skoble’s (the narrator) main argument is that businesses like bars and restaurants are private property that belongs to the business owner, and therefore, bans on “public” smoking shouldn’t extend to them and restrict freedom.
First of all, we already have laws that differentiate private residential property from private commercial or for-profit property. Even if a certain location affected by this ban doesn’t count as commercial, this fact still goes to show that the law already makes distinctions between businesses and private residences in terms of government involvement and regulation. Libertarians may disagree with that philosophy entirely, but there’s good reason why we do. For example, we, as a society, have decided that we will not tolerate racial discrimination in our businesses or public places. The government directly told businesses they cannot discriminate based on race in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many libertarians, such as Senator Rand Paul (a rumored Vice Presidential pick for Mitt Romney in 2012), believe this part of the Civil Rights Act and the desegregation movement is wrong based on this principle that the government should never get involved in any way with private citizens and what they do with their property.
When running for office in 2010, Paul said “I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners [what to do]… I think it’s a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant (referring to racial discrimination), but at the same time I do believe in private ownership.”
In his many interviews during that year, mostly those with Rachel Maddow, Senator Paul reiterated how much he hates racism, and that he, as a US citizen that gets to make his own choices of where to eat and what businesses to support, would never go to a restaurant, bar, or other business that discriminated based on race. He also continually said or insinuated that it is very bad for business to discriminate based on race (or other identifying factors), that any business that did discriminate would lose a great amount of business, ultimately fail, and that the old fashioned libertarian belief in the free market would prevail and put and end to racism.
This idea, that the free market on its own would eventually take care of itself and end discrimination, is just not true. Rand Paul even somewhat indirectly admits that by acknowledging that the South took so much longer than the North to desegregate, and only did so when forced to by the federal government. In case Senator Paul didn’t know, racism was really popular back in the day. A business would not have failed because of a “no blacks allowed” policy, and to this day, had the government not mandated it, we would very likely still have segregation in many places in America, especially in the South.
Not only that, but herein lies the key flaw with this argument. Let’s say, hypothetically, there’s a small town in the South with only one or two grocery stores. According to libertarian philosophy, both of these stores would hold the right to deny minorities such as black people service. What would happen to the black people of this town if the only grocery stores decided to not serve them? They would not have a means of obtaining food. Some may say they could move to another town, but that would be very expensive, and it’s very likely they live in the town because they work there or nearby. I think we can all agree moving would not be a realistic or fair option. These people would be forced into extreme poverty, unable to even buy food, because of the libertarian philosophy of “maximizing freedom” by removing all restrictions, limitations, and regulations from people and making a “free” society. Quite ironically, at the same time, this very same libertarian model in these towns of the South would have greatly restricted individual freedom for many people within minorities.
The above scenario may be a hypothetical in most (but not all) places in America today, but not fifty years ago it was a very real problem. Without the federal government’s intervention in desegregation, individual freedom would have been greatly limited and jeopardized, be it by limiting one’s choices of where to shop or giving them no choice at all and forcing them into poverty. Given that, it is perfectly acceptable for the government to reasonably regulate interstate commerce in such a way that it protects American citizens and individual freedom.
Let’s take this lesson then, and apply it to the issue at hand of smoking in “public” places. In the video, we discover the primary conflict comes from smokers feeling they have the right to smoke wherever they want, and non-smokers who feel they have the right to breathe clean air wherever they want. This is the point where the video loses me, however, because it takes the libertarian philosophy of assuming that by removing all government regulations you maximize freedom, and therefore, with the property belonging to the business owner, the business owner should be the one to determine whether or not his or her bar or restaurant is smoking, non-smoking, or a combination. As I just highlighted with my desegregation segment, the assumption that removing government’s presence altogether maximizes freedom is a false one, and equally applicable to the smoking scenario (though I’m not trying to make claim that public smoking is anywhere near as serious as desegregation was – apologies if I came off that way). When asked how to “maximize freedom,” instead of saying we should just get rid of the rules, we should ask which of the proposed scenarios provides the most people with the greatest amount of individual freedom? Which scenario gives the most people the most options and choices?
In the video the only two options were a very black-and-white full-out government ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, or a complete removal of government and leaving the issue up to individual business owners. The latter of these proposals is the libertarian position and exactly the same as the one proposed by Rand Paul when he was talking about desegregation. So, let’s look at another hypothetical. If we go with the libertarian proposal, what if every restaurant in town decided to allow smoking? People who are unable to be around smoke for whatever reason will no longer be able to go to restaurants (or possibly other businesses and public places) in their town. They are completely denied this freedom, leaving non-smokers out in the dark. Now let’s flip the scenario around the other way. If we go with the non-libertarian proposal of banning smoking in public places, the same is not true for smokers. Their freedom to smoke wherever they want is only partially infringed upon, whereas a non-smoker’s freedom to eat out is fully denied. Smokers can help but not smoke for thirty minutes to an hour to enjoy a meal (except perhaps the most severe forms of addiction). Black people, going back to the desegregation analogy, can’t help but be black. Their freedom was fully denied. Non-smokers can’t help but breathe, meaning their freedom to breathe clean air (be it a personal choice or medical requirement) is fully denied. A smoker’s freedom to smoke is not fully denied by simply not allowing smoking in restaurants. The smoker is still free to smoke at his or her personal residence, and some outdoor places. Again, here we find the segregation analogy is apt, because people are equally welcomed to ban minorities from entering their private residence if they so choose. The government has no right to say otherwise, but when it comes to private businesses, the government has every right, and duty, to do so, to maximize freedom through protecting individual freedom. Therefore, of these two options, the one that actually maximizes freedom the most is banning smoking in public places, including bars and restaurants, because it gives the most people the most options. Non-smokers and smokers can go wherever they like to eat equally, it’s just unfortunate that smokers may have to not smoke for an hour or so. The alternative of these two scenarios would completely prevent non-smokers from going wherever they like to eat. Far from ideal, but between just these two, banning smoking actually gives people more freedom.
Ideally, of course, there would be a requirement that all restaurants and bars offer separate smoking and non-smoking sections. This would both maximize business by expanding the client base, and maximize freedom by letting smokers smoke wherever they want and non-smokers enjoy fresh air simultaneously. Of course, realistically, doing so can cost a significant amount of money to implement and maintain, and given what little monetary advantage there may be into catering both crowds, many restaurants will choose to ban smoking, and essentially for the exact same reason as explained above. Just as banning smoking maximizes freedom, it would also maximize profits by allowing smokers to still eat at the restaurant, just not smoke there, whereas allowing smoking would greatly disincentive or even outright prevent non-smokers from coming altogether.
And so we arrive once again at the fundamental principle of libertarianism with which I disagree. I think it’s safe to say everyone wants to have as free of a society as possible. Libertarians believe to maximize freedom you must remove the government wherever possible by eliminating regulations and letting the free market “do its thing” to make a free society. Progressives, on the other hand, believe to maximize freedom you must guarantee as much individual freedom as possible by effectively combining the free market with the protections of the government. Without these protections, people will unfairly discriminate and abuse their power. We’ve seen it happen time and time again throughout history, including our own. Just look at the labor revolts of the late 19th and early 20th century, or the civil rights struggles of the mid 20th century. Those in power, be they the managers of a company that treated their employees poorly, or the racist business owners that denied service to people because of the color of their skin, will always seek to build a system to retain and protect their power, no matter the cost to society or personal freedom. Today, we see this in the form of special interest groups, corporations, and the ultra wealthy (the 1%). They buy politicians with their surplus of money (amassed at least in part thanks to the society that helped them obtain it) to help them win elections in exchange for political favors such as eliminating regulation, including those that are in place to protect the public, and crafting a tax code that unfairly benefits the wealthy more than it helps the lower classes. This unbalanced representation incentivizes politicians to do as the wealthy want far more than anything the lower classes could do just for equal representation, and is the core problem with the American government.
The Libertarian idea that the free market is a cure-all and will fix all society’s problems if the government was just removed from the equation is an illusion – smoke and mirrors all too often employed by right-wing politicians to manipulate the voting public into thinking government is the problem, and that by removing it you maximize freedom. As I demonstrated earlier in this piece, it simply doesn’t. I’m not saying government can’t be the problem, or that there’s no such thing as over burdensome regulation, but right now in history we’re no where near that point. Both state and federal governments are slashing programs with dangerous austerity measures that greatly jeopardize the economic wellbeing of the middle and lower class as well as dramatically rolling-back regulations that increase pollution and danger to our environment. At the same time, these same governments and law makers ask for virtually no sacrifice from the upper class or big pollutant industries. By carrying the banner of defending the free market, politicians make themselves sound like the heroes, when in reality their actions could greatly jeopardize and restrict individual freedom.
The only other time most major right-wing politicians use libertarian philosophy is out of naivety. While most may use it as manipulation, some politicians actually believe by removing nearly all limitations on individual citizens society will be better, either because they ignorantly don’t even think of the consequences or they naively believe that people, without rules, limitations, or a proper incentive and disincentive structure, will still be moral people and do the right thing. In this way, some aspects of libertarian philosophy are not unlike its diametric opposite, communism. Under communism, those in charge of society believe that people will work as hard as possible with no incentive or reason to do so. Libertarianism makes the assumption that people won’t take advantage of one another out of self-interest with no disincentive or reason to not, regardless of the damage they may do to society or individual freedoms along the way. This is the main idea behind the philosophy if Ayn Rand; that people should value their own self-interest, self-preservation, and self-happiness above that of others, and that the moral purpose in life should be one’s own pursuit of happiness or self-interest. All other forms of morals and laws, be they governmental, social, logical, ethical, divine, or otherwise, should take backseat to personal desire (if any “seat” at all).
It’s extremely ironic that Rand’s philosophy has been adopted by the Republican Party, given that they have in large part become the Christian Party, and her ideology is actually very Satanic. Rand herself even spoke out against Christianity and religion, believing them to be signs of weakness, because such religions promoted compassion for fellow human beings. Many of the key tenants of Satanism involve harnessing what Christianity and other faiths consider sins and using them as motivation since they all give personal gratification. Greed gets someone more money, hatred gets someone more power, and so on. Rand similarly believed that people should only act out of their own self-interest, much like Satanists. How’s that for a strong dose of irony?
It is because of all these reasons I strongly disagree with many tenants of libertarianism. At the same time though, I can respectfully disagree with libertarians much more often than with self-proclaimed conservatives or Republicans. First and foremost, libertarians are much more genuine. They don’t beat around the bush by saying they want to “reform” or even “privatize” Social Security like Republicans do; they just come out and say they want to abolish it. More often than not, libertarians will say what they mean, and mean what they say; no coded talk, no bullshit. I can respect that. On top of that, libertarians base a lot of their arguments out of pure logic, which lowers the chance of skewed or misleading facts in an argument. I can really respect that. Some of the best, most productive philosophical discussions of government and its purpose I’ve ever had came from libertarians who truly believe in an ideology of survival of the fittest. In their mind, that makes purely logical sense, because the strong should prosper and the weak should perish (even if not literally).
Where I disagree with libertarians is that we need to have a system of government and society that provides the opportunities and protections to each and every citizen therein fairly so everyone can have the opportunity to prosper. Without those protections, the societies of the world will fall under brutal hierarchies of dictators and oligarchies, with all those not part of the upper echelons of society reduced to the level of slaves.