Okay, let’s do talk about freedom

Okay, let’s do talk about freedom

- in Weekly Briefing

Responding to the ideological attacks on smoking restrictions

Members of the General Assembly's House Health Committee are expected to have their second go at a bill to limit smoking in public places this week. As one might expect in a state with a long history of tobacco production, the measure is still controversial with growers, cigarette manufacturers and some of the workers they employ. These groups, understandably, are fearful that limitations on tobacco use will discourage consumption and, in so doing, further undermine the long-shrinking industry.

Though probably accurate in their fears, these protests seem doomed to fail. As with so many other obsolete institutions and practices have been left behind by the evolution of human knowledge, it is certain that, at some point soon, the unwanted public infliction of secondhand tobacco smoke on others will be mostly banished. With the advances of science and our growing shared appreciation of the threat to health and long life posed by environmental hazards, modern humans will simply not long tolerate something that's so demonstrably toxic and so easily controlled at such a minimal cost.

But what about "freedom"?

Another line of attack against attempts to limit smoking in public accommodations and the workplace comes from local right-wing think tanks. The following is from a letter penned recently by a lobbyist for one of the groups:

"The debate over House Bill 2 is not between smokers and non-smokers.  It is between those who want more government control and those who value personal freedom.  Freedom is about choices even if some of those choices are bad ones.

Not everyone makes good decisions.  Some people choose to smoke, drink too much, not exercise, save inadequately for retirement, eat too much, or take up dangerous hobbies.  The point is they get to choose. When government attempts to engineer our behavior ‘for our own good', it takes that choice away and infringes on property rights and takes away our freedom."

A common sense response

At first blush, there's something superficially appealing about the "freedom" argument. Almost all humans (especially Americans) share a common streak of what might best be described as cussedness – an instinctive desire to be left alone by those who would tell us what to do. It's an instinct that's played an enormous role in the development of the American way of life – our Constitution, our economy, our religious institutions.

Unfortunately, as with so many other great truths and insights, this one is easily and regularly misunderstood and distorted.

And so it is in the far right worldview, where the ideal state of living is a kind of neo-Wild, Wild West in which every human is an independent free agent and public institutions and structures are merely necessary evils. In this dog-eat-dog world, property is king. Humans need property to assure their comfort and security (and even their freedom). Therefore, the main role of government is to help them acquire and protect it.

The problem with this view, of course, is that in the modern, post-industrial world not everyone can be a feudal lord or a homesteader. To secure freedom for most of the six billion-plus people on the planet in our decidedly non-Wild, Wild West world, public institutions and structures must do more than just secure property rights.

And smoking restrictions?            

For the market fundamentalists, the issue is not whether people are free to control their own bodies. If that were true, they'd be demanding the legalization of drugs, and crusading against governmental limits on reproductive freedom and same sex relationships. Their argument is not about smoking, it's a theoretical polemic about property. The far right has no objection to a boss or property owner that limits the freedom of his workers or visitors to smoke.

What this property-centered view ignores, of course, is that there is a heck of a lot more to "freedom" than what one can or can't do on one's land. How "free" is the office worker or waitress who, as the result of circumstances mostly beyond her control, ends up stuck in a job in which secondhand smoke poisons her on a daily basis? Sure, in some sense she's "free" to quit and look for a new job – maybe in a different community away from her family and friends. But, is that what we mean by "freedom"?

Should the "rights" of the property owner – even those who, say, may have done nothing more than inherit a business – trump those of his employees?

Should the public, which makes a property owner's restaurant possible through the provision of public streets, police and fire protection and water and sewer service have no say at all about whether or not such a public accommodation will permit a group of citizens to be poisoned against their will?

A better view of freedom

Clearly, there is more to freedom than property rights. FDR identified a good list that he called the Four Essential Freedoms (Freedom of speech and expression; Freedom of worship; Freedom from want; and Freedom from fear). To this list, we might add the Freedom to live in a healthy and sustainable environment or the Freedom of adults to control their own bodies. Common sense tells us that there are others.

Common sense also tells us that there must be a balance between freedoms when they compete and that line drawing can be a difficult exercise. Property rights are much more clearly intertwined with individual freedom, for instance, when the debate is over private behavior in a private home. That's why Americans are constitutionally free to discriminate on the basis of race in their own homes, but not in employment or public accommodations.

At some point, however, as human activity gets closer to the public realm and the exercise of one's freedom directly harms the health, well-being and freedom of others, democratic institutions must often intervene.       

Just, for instance, because some workers are willing to work on a private, high rise construction site without safety harnesses or nets is not a sufficient ground for allowing an employer to make such demands. Just because some in the public would be willing to sit in the aisles of an overcrowded airliner or ferry in order to get lower fares isn't reason enough to defer to the property rights of the airline owners that would permit such activity.

Regulation of secondhand smoke is another example of such a situation – a circumstance in which the benefits (in the form of increased freedom for workers and the public at-large) are so demonstrably large and the infringement on property rights so minuscule, that the common good must win out.

Rather than creating a "nanny state" as the far right alleges, secondhand smoke rules actually help to establish a freer society – a place in which opportunity, prosperity and wellness are available to more than just people of property.

With any luck, there will be more such expansions of freedom to come.     

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.