Kevin directed me to a Jonah Goldberg article about the increasing compulsion to ban just about everything:
The New York Post recently compiled a list of the things that the New York City Council tried to ban – not all successfully – just in 2006 alone: pit bulls; trans-fats; aluminum baseball bats; the purchase of tobacco by 18- to 20-year-olds; foie gras; pedicabs in parks; new fast-food restaurants (but only in poor neighborhoods); lobbyists from the floor of council chambers; lobbying city agencies after working at the same agency; vehicles in Central and Prospect parks; cell phones in upscale restaurants; the sale of pork products made in a processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., because of a unionization dispute; mail-order pharmaceutical plans; Candy-flavored cigarettes; gas-station operators adjusting prices more than once daily; Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus; Wal-Mart.
Goldberg rightly points out that this excessive policing of the minutiae of daily life, as well as the interference with healthy market functioning is a bad thing:
In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville warns: “It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my own part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in great things than in little ones. …”
“Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately,” he continued. “It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will.” He goes on to note that in the “great things,” the burden of (temporarily) lost freedom must inevitably fall “upon a small number of men.” For example, in war we understand that some men (and now women) surrender the bulk of their liberties to protect the liberties of everybody else.
This is a typically penetrating insight, and one with new relevance these days. This country seems to have inverted de Tocqueville’s hierarchy. On countless fronts, the natural pastures of daily liberty have become circumscribed by dull-witted but well-meaning bureaucrats slapping down the paving stones of good intentions on the road to Hell.
I’m all for letting people indulge their vices, provided that (a) there is enough information in the marketplace for them to make an intelligent decision about their chosen behavior and (b) that the government will police unfairness or illegality in any given arena. As to the former, that means letting people eat trans fats, provided (i) that they are given information somewhere along the line about the health risks and (ii) that they know that what they are eating does, in fact, contain those facts. With regard to the latter provision (policing), if someone sells something with trans fats but identifies the product as being trans fat free, well, that should be addressed vigorously on old-fashioned fraud grounds.
Despite agreeing with Goldberg, though, I continue to believe that it’s okay to limit cigarette smoke in public places. As I keep saying, I don’t care if you smoke, but I vigorously object if you make me smoke. That line of reasoning, of course, makes it so that I disagree with legislation aimed at limiting smoking in private places, since I think outside of the public sphere, if the smoke can be contained, people should be allowed to puff away with impunity.