Addressing the Arguments of a Mayor
Tibor R. Machan
The Mayor of Ft. Collins, CO, published a letter on his web site in response to a student who protested smoking ordinances and quoted me to indicate the problem with such laws. The quote used went as follows: "Why do [government officials and voters] believe that they are entitled to non-smoking in restaurants when they do not belong to them? Whoever owns the area…ought to have the right to say whether smoking is permitted in it."
Mayor Ray Martinez responded as follows:
There are many good reasons why the government steps in and looks after the health and safety of the public in general. Just for a few examples, some states require motorcyclists to wear helmets, seatbelts in the vehicle, no smoking on the airlines, you can't move into your home until the builder receives a "certificate of occupancy," which means the government inspects the home before you can live in the home you are purchasing, restaurants have many regulations regarding the temperature they have to keep the refrigerator, certain foods, cleaning up responsibilities, handling of foods, liquor licensing, being searched at the airport for the safety of all, guidelines on where you can and cannot drink alcoholic beverages and at what age, privileges of driving depending on your health condition, your age, testing ability to qualify for a drivers' license, where you can and cannot ride a bicycle, etc. and the list goes on.
I was not asked to be part of this debate and do not know if the student who chose to quote me had the chance to reply. However, the Mayor’s response merits attention because it contains some very popular ways of defending government intervention in people’s lives and because he appears to be sincere and certainly civil in his response.
Let me take the examples the mayor offers in order. He says that “some states require motorcyclists to wear helmets, seatbelts in the vehicle….” Indeed, it is the law in many states that when using state roads, motorcyclists must wear helmets and those in cars must wear seatbelts. These laws, however, rest precisely on the principle of property rights. The states own the roads and make the rules of using them. (One might raise the question whether the states ought to own the roads, but that is not the issue here.) Ownership confers the authority to make the rules and the mayor appears to agree.
The mayor then goes on to mention the FAA’s rules of prohibiting “smoking on the airlines…” While there is a federal regulation to this effect, he doesn’t defend it and it is indeed questionable whether it can be defended. An airline in a free society ought to be free to offer its services on its own terms and costumers ought to be free to either accept or reject them. It is just from this kind of diverse provision of services that competition arises. By imposing the terms, the government undermines both freedom and competition. As to some basic health provisions, the pressure of possible law suits and insurance company requirements would meet those without involving any government intervention.
The mayor goes not to note that “you can't move into your home until the builder receives a ‘certificate of occupancy,’ which means the government inspects the home before you can live in the home you are purchasing….” Again, this is an accurate enough report on how things stand but it misses the point: perhaps they ought not to stand this way. It is arguable that governments, which in the Declaration of Independence are said to be instituted so as to “secure [our] rights,” exceed their proper authority when they go around inspecting homes and imposing rules on how they must be built, except in so far as certain ways of building homes can involve a clear and present danger to innocent third parties.
The mayor then mentions that “restaurants have many regulations regarding the temperature they have to keep the refrigerator, certain foods, cleaning up responsibilities, handling of foods, liquor licensing….” And again he is correct but the point isn’t whether there are such regulations but whether they are just, proper, for the government to issue and enforce. All these regulations could be achieved without government – insurance companies could require all these measures before they will sell insurance to restaurants, for example. And organizations akin to the Better Business Bureau could also carry out these kinds of functions. Finally, if a restaurant owner decided not to provide these services and customers were still willing to trust the establishment, it would be their right to do so in a genuinely free society. The mayor continues in the same vein noting that passengers are “being searched at the airport for the safety of all,” and that there are “guidelines on where you can and cannot drink alcoholic beverages and at what age,” that the “privileges of driving depend… on your health condition, your age, testing ability to qualify for a drivers' license, where you can and cannot ride a bicycle, etc. and the list goes on.” All this is true. The last part of the list concerns, again, the fact that governments own the roads and are responsible for administering them, so they set the rules of the road. As to searches at airports, these also take place in government facilities and are therefore subject to the government’s rules, although that isn’t the only alternative – airports could be privately owned and administered and once again insurance companies could set requirements that would result in safety regulations.
What the mayor’s comments show is lack of consideration for alternative ways of securing safety, ways that do not do violence to the principle of individual rights. They also reveal complacency about the slippery slope of encroaching government intervention in people’s lives – from his sort of reasoning one can indeed move to justifying a totalitarian state.
Finally, since restaurants are private property in most instances, most of the mayor’s examples do not apply to whether they may be regulated by the government, including as to whether costumers may nor may not smoke there.