The Smoking Ban: Protecting Us from Ourselves, Since 2004

I live in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a place where the government goes above and beyond the call of duty in trying to protect us from ourselves.

A few years ago, Boston enacted a smoking ban in all bars and restaurants, and a bit later, the whole state followed suit. As an Objectivist, I ranted against this absurdity to anyone who would listen. I don't smoke, but I fully support the right of business owners to run their establishments as they see fit, for patrons to frequent those establishments according to their own likes and dislikes, and for employees of those establishments to work there or not based on their own values and judgments.

Supporters of the ban really didn't have a leg to stand on when they tried to defend customers from second-hand smoke -- the argument of "well, just don't eat/drink there if you don't want to smell smoke" was too obvious and rational to fight against successfully.

The argument that got the most traction was in defending the poor service-industry workers who had to put up with the smoke. This was all based on them having a "right to work" as well as a "right to work in a safe environment", taken to mean their right to work was translated into a duty by a bar owner to make things "safe".

For some reason, raising the point that those workers didn't have to work in a bar that allows smoking was met with cries of outrage. I distinctly remember peoples' voices getting high-pitched and frantic, with whines of "but EVERY bar allows smoking! What is a waitress going to do if she doesn't want to work with second-hand smoke? She'll starve!"

So the law passed, and smoking was banned.

Then, as a father nearing middle age who rarely goes out to bars anymore, I saw what a difference it makes in my going-out experience. I meet up with old friends in Boston maybe once a month at most. Going into an old Irish bar or dive that we used to frequent when I was in my mid-20's (oh soooo long ago...) is an entirely different thing now. I don't have to immediately throw my toxic jeans and shirt into the laundry when I get home, and take a 45 minute shower just to get the burned-in smoke smell out. My eyes don't burn when I'm at the bar. My voice doesn't get hoarse. It's awesome.

Would I change the law now, even though I love the small impact it has had in my life?

Yes, in a heartbeat.

If there was a market for non-smoking bars, it would have been established as an alternative before. If the market has since shifted and there is greater demand for it now that people have seen the change, repealing the law now may actually allow both smoking and non-smoking bars to flourish.

But even if it goes back to the old way, where most good bars -- the ones where the food/drink/people are the best, the popular ones that people want to go to -- are smoke filled and make my eyes water, I'd still rather have that than knowing that my momentary enjoyment of clean air is at the expense of the individual rights of businessmen, employees and customers alike.

So as much as I hate smelling like I rolled around in an ashtray upon leaving a bar, I say repeal the smoking ban!


Jason Stotts said...

Well put.

Lynne said...

Congratulations on and thanks for the new O blog.

Being from the general Boston area, maybe you saw this in the Globe a few weeks back:

It looks like there is no end in sight to this nanny-state madness. It's almost enough to make one an activist!

LB (originally from N of Boston, now W of Boston).

C. August said...

Thanks, Jason and LB.

LB: I did see that article in the Sunday Globe magazine awhile back but didn't read it in detail then. Thanks for the link. The one in your comments isn't active, so I'll include it here.

After reading this, I'm sure this "paternalism once-removed" will really take over in academic and political circles. It's the perfect shell-game to hide the "good intentions" of government meddling behind a layer of abstraction, statistics, and "behavioral economics". From the article:

Simply giving people more choices, therefore - whether it's among healthcare plans, pension plans, or schools - is no assurance that they'll make the best choice.

So libertarian paternalists like Thaler and Sunstein argue there's a real need for someone to step in and guide us. But they do not hold the traditional liberal belief that a wise government mandate is the best kind of social policy...

Hence Thaler and Sunstein's faith in choice architecture. Just as a well-designed building or a well-built tool can shape a person's path or actions, a well-designed framework for making decisions, they believe, can lead people to outcomes that will ultimately make them happier.


... in realms such as retirement savings, healthcare, and organ donation, the government is already setting defaults. It makes sense, say proponents, to set those options intelligently - rather than randomly, as the US government did with millions of enrollees in the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

What this insidiously bland language is asserting seems even worse than the 'hit you over the head' socialism of the last 40 years of govt. programs. This takes the same core philosophy -- that individuals need to be guided by the state against their will for the purpose of the moment -- and just coats it in grease, sugar, and the distraction of complexity so it slides down our throats without us even noticing.

Wow. This patronizing, paternalistic, Nader-like, nanny state viewpoint makes my blood boil even more than the overt socialism of most of Massachusetts' actions.

I need a cup of coffee.

Rick "Doc" MacDonald said...

Calm down ... take a deep breath. This is the Boston Globe we're talking about. Everyone with a brain knows that 90% of what it reports is fiction. :-)

C. August said...

Oh, would that it were true, Rick. Unfortunately, when the Globe describes new and innovative ways in which the government can "help" us, I'm of the view that they know what they're talking about.

I see two commenters so far who are from MA. What do you think of the smoking ban?

Lynne said...

There’s something beautifully poetic about being Banned in Boston, though, isn’t there?

The smoking ban seems downright illegal. I really don’t know enough about it, so maybe this has happened, but why didn’t anyone take the idea to court? I do know that thanks to the inculcation of school children, smoking is pretty much thought to be the equivalent of murder or suicide nowadays, so the proponents of the ban would probably stack the courtroom with slogan-chanting school children. And who can resist slogan-chanting school children?

It’s about individual rights. If I own a food service, or entertainment establishment, it should be my choice as to whether or not I allow smokers in the joint. The rights of the establishment owner are being violated by the state under the guise of protecting the rights of his patrons (by choice) and employees (non-indentured, I assume). It happens all the time that individual rights are violated in the name of protecting people’s rights: think of all the environmental regulations not based on property rights.

I share your outrage (re: nudging and the smoking ban) C. August. I’m guessing that even if the Globe is 90% fiction, which I would reclassify as 90% bad ideas, probably 75% of the 3.2 million adults it reaches (self-reporting) find the Globe writing entertaining and intellectual and are therefore highly influenced by it. Doc (I sincerely thank you for your service to our country), clearly you are surrounded by more critical thinkers than I am. From where I sit, I find that the Globe dovetails nicely with the majority of those in our commonwealth whose unquestioned predisposition toward “liberal paternalism” (scary phrase) today will turn into the regulations of tomorrow.

It takes a village, for the good of the kids, need for community service, anthropogenic global warming, universal health care – read them, speak them, hear them enough times, they become part of the culture. Now, what, if anything, can we do to combat these bad ideas?… That's what I'm currently struggling with.

C. August said...

LB, I have the same view of Le Globule. And I also have noticed the disturbingly common phrases you mentioned being tossed around in its pages. With things like environmentalism popping up as accepted wisdom in random articles having nothing to do with it, it can't help but have an impact.

And I agree that it all dovetails nicely with the nanny-state views of most of the people I see everyday. I too have yet to figure out exactly how to start confronting it. I share Rational Jenn's sense of fatigue just by remembering the endless debates with idiots in college. That alone is a huge barrier to entry.

Lynne said...

Check out Snuffing Out Puffing Neighbors in yesterday's Globe.

Sorry to keep referencing the Globe, but it really may impact the opinions of a lot of people around us.,.,.,(that's me shuddering).

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

We have the same smoking ban in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, though the rest of New Mexico remains reassuringly rural and western in culture and outlook.

It has been noticed here that certain restaurants have increased business since the smoking ban--particularly family restaurants that do not serve alcohol, and breakfast places.

If the ban were lifted here, I expect that some of these would probably remain non-soking places by choice.

Before the ban, there were a few non-smoking bars and a non-smoking comedy club that were wildly popular, and again, were the ban to be lifted, they'd probably remain non-smoking. Other bars would probably be smoking establishments again.

I am a non-smoker and I have an actual allergic reaction to smoke, so prior to the ban, I did not frequent these places much. I was a waitress in college, but I worked at a swank dinner place where smoking was confined to the bar anyway. So I was not forced out of work from my allergy. But then, I probably would not do well at farming corn, either, the pollen would make me miserable.
Should we ban corn-pollen from the farm for my benefit?
So the "right to work" argument is ridiculous. There are plenty of other jobs out there for people who want to work.

I think that if people want options, and are willing to pay money for them, the options will exist. The government at the city, county, state of national level ought to just get out of the way and let people solve these problems for themselves. It will work out.

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