Column - WVU BOG only got it half right with tobacco ban
Published: Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 00:06
The notoriously controversial smoking and tobacco ban is now an impending reality for the entire West Virginia University campus, officially commencing July 1st, 2013. To be blunt, this ban is undoubtedly a statute with good intentions to appease the presumably clean-air loving majority who do not smoke. But on account of banning smokeless tobacco that directly harms no one other than the user, this ban is an infringement on essential liberties.
Way back when the price of gasoline was less than $2 per gallon, I had a teacher with such incredibly repugnant breath that I wasn’t sure who was suffering more, her, or every other sentient being within range of her fetor exhalations. In economics, we call this a "negative externality", which is when part of the costs from an action fall on someone who did not agree to such costs. Examples include sitting next to a person in class with some serious body odor, and more pertinent for the current discussion, air pollution, of which walking through a cloud of someone’s cigarette smoke serves as an acute, and disgusting, example.
Given the checkered history of tobacco products, which are chock-full of cancer-causing carcinogens, it makes sense that legislative action would be taken against their presence in a public place. To ban tobacco products that cause negative externalities in the form of smoke is done rightly so, but not on account of democracy.
Democracy is nothing but mob-rule, or, tyranny of the majority. If democracy were to exist in an unfettered state, we could reinstitute slavery on account of majority rule. John Adams heeded us to "remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself". Because of this foresight, in the United States democracy is not unfettered, and is bound by the Bill of Rights that protects the rights of the minority. The rationale for such protection can be seen in Benjamin Franklin’s remark that "democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!" However, protecting the rights of the minority, too, can be dangerous. Many times in the United States a passionate minority can easily win out over a largely apathetic (or not as well funded interest group) majority, as is the case with tobacco’s own past.
It is not prudent to base ethical decisions on the whims of the majority or the vested interest of the minority. Slavery is wrong, arguably, on account that it violates "inalienable rights" - fundamental principles such as freedom and liberty. Smoke in the air, too, is wrong on account that it violates the principle of freedom from negative externalities like smoke.
Since, as Plato puts it "a state arises, as I conceive, out of the needs of mankind; no one is self-sufficing, but all of us have many wants", it is ideal (even in anarchy!) that some governing institution be the enforcer and protector of our "inalienable rights".
For esoteric reasons that I shall spare you from for another time, the only justifiable role of government is the protection of negative rights and principles. That means you have the freedom from someone trying to murder you, steal from you, and from them breathing cancer-causing smoke on you. Also, you have the right to do whatever you wish to do until you infringe on the rights of others.
Smokeless tobacco, however, does not infringe on the rights of anyone else, and for this reason it is readily obvious that the decision to ban not just smoke tobacco, but also smokeless tobacco was not based on principle; to argue for a ban on smoke tobacco on the principle that it violates a persons inalienable right from harm, from smoke, it would be self-contradictory to ban smokeless tobacco for it does not violate the inalienable rights of others.
What I’m saying is that the WVU Board of Governors got it half right. They banned smoke tobacco probably because of popular opinion. However, banning smokeless tobacco was wrong - an infringement on essential liberties.
If the University has the authority to make decisions over actions that directly harm no one other than the individual engaged in the action, why not ban cupcakes? Sure, smokeless tobacco can be unsightly, but a gluttonous cupcake-eater could be imposing negative externalities by having extra "luggage" spill over onto my desk causing me to lose focus, fail a class, and drop out - resulting in less money for the University!
I’m with Jefferson when he said, "I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it", even if it means having to tolerate annoying things that don’t directly affect me like smokeless tobacco, or a girl with a horribly orange spray-on tan.