The Sovereign Mind

Free thought on politics and real life

Posts Tagged ‘smoking

The Limits of Freedom

with 2 comments


As my state considers a state-wide smoking ban in restaurants, bars, and the like, I’ve been considering when it is appropriate to restrict freedom. I don’t smoke, and I don’t particularly like second-hand smoke either, so it’s very tempting to me to stay on the sidelines. After all, it’s not my choices that are being restricted.

But I also am reminded of the fact that we live in the “land of the free”. What exactly does that mean? In this country, we take freedom very seriously. Let’s start with what I hope everyone can agree on: Freedom is not limited by what the majority feels is the right thing to do. It is a contradiction to say, “Yes, we are free in this country, so long as you do use your freedom to choose good things and not things we think are stupid.” The point of the right to “freedom” is that we have a right to make our own choices, even if others would view them as poor choices. Anything less is not truly freedom.

However, there are also times when our freedom is, and should be, restricted. I cannot do anything I want and defend my actions by saying, “It’s a free country, ain’t it?” I can’t steal something that doesn’t belong to me, or yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater. So there are limitations to my freedom, and rightly so.

So, as I contemplate the pending smoking ban, and my own apathy towards it, I’m prompted to consider the question: when it is OK for my freedom to be restricted? The default position should be that my freedom should not be restricted, and the burden is on those who wish to restrict freedom to argue that it is worth it.

There are two arguments for why a particular choice should be restricted. The first may be obvious, although I think it has some subtleties. The second is less obvious.

1) My freedom to do something may be restricted when that choice is harmful to other people who are not willingly participating. The harm may come upon them directly or indirectly (I don’t understand why some people argue that indirect harm is any less valid than direct harm.) However, the question should also be asked: can the harm on other person be avoided by some other means that doesn’t restrict the freedom of either party?

2) My freedom to do something may be restricted if the decision is too complex for the common person to make it on their own. That’s a statement that most freedom-loving people would scoff at, but I hope you consider it carefully. Do you oppose regulation that says that poison should not be put in cereal? What if companies could do it without even indicating it on the label? If we consider only #1 above, one could argue that the companies are free to do so, because those who buy the cereal are willingly participating in the consumption of that cereal. Consumers are free to abstain. However, clearly this is going too far. We accept the fact that our government protects us from our own ignorance at times. It would be impractical for everyone to be an expert in every field so that we can make good decisions in all aspects of our life. I don’t have the expertise or equipment to test the breakfast cereal that I buy for poisons, so I trust the FDA will do it’s job and restrict food companies from putting such things in my food. I also trust that the government will ensure the safety of the planes that I board, because I am incapable of doing so myself. So I want the government to restrict the airlines from choosing to neglect passenger safety.

So, returning to the smoking ban, we must first define which freedom we are restricting (and, to be clear, every law can be defined as a restriction of freedom). In this case, the freedom being restricting is the freedom of business owners to determine whether smoking will be allowed in their business. As much as I like eating in smoke-free restaurants, I have to say that I can’t justify the restriction of that freedom, based on the criteria above.

For one thing, no one is forced to enter the business, and therefore no one is harmed except for those who willingly participate. Clearly, customers are not forced to enter a particular business. And even employees can choose to quit. One might argue that the right of the employee to choose where they will work is being infringed. However, that right doesn’t really exist. A person does not have the right to choose any workplace and determine the conditions of their employment. The employer decides who is hired and who is not, and the employer also has the right to set the conditions of employment. That’s not to say that the employer holds all of the cards. If an employee does not like the working conditions, the employee can choose the leave. If enough other employees follow, this can cause problems for the employer as well. The employer will have to look harder and pay more to find people willing to work in sub-par conditions.

Secondly, the decision to smoke or not to smoke, or to frequent a business that caters to smokers, is not too complex for the average consumer. There is no need for the government to protect us from our ignorance, since the negative health effects of smoking are well-known.

And yet, the smoking ban will likely pass without much challenge. So, am I missing another key reason why freedoms can and should be restricted? I’m not opposed to seat-belt laws, but that also doesn’t qualify under either of the conditions mentioned above. So, is there another condition I am missing? Or should we be accept a government that restricts our freedom to make bad choices?

Written by Mike

May 14, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Posted in government

Tagged with , , , , ,