Friday, October 10, 2003

Rights and Reason: Smokin' Babies

Montgomery County, Maryland, has joined the ranks of local governments banning smoking in restaurants and bars. I won’t repeat the familiar (and correct) arguments against this violation of private property rights. Instead, I’ll offer this idea: Let’s ban infants and toddlers from bars and restaurants. Personally, I’m far more sensitive to excessive noise than the smell of cigarette smoke. We can all agree that a crying baby or toddler can make any restaurant experience unpleasant. Therefore, banning such people from restaurants is in the “public interest” and a proper subject for government regulation.

The anti-smoking advocates will say there’s a difference between smoking and crying babies: the former constitutes a “public health” issue that the latter does not. This difference, however, is one of pretext, not substance. The idea that smoking in restaurants is a public health question is a recent invention. We’ve known the health effects of cigarette smoking for decades, yet health authorities stood by and let the practice flourish in the nation’s eating and drinking establishments. I’m surprise some enterprising tort lawyer (paging John Banzhaf) hasn’t thought to sue local governments that haven’t banned smoking in restaurants. After all, those jurisdictions are practically accomplices to mass murder!

Restaurant smoking bans are not about public health, but “quality of life,” a euphemism popularized by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s crackdown on property rights under the pretext of “public interest.” Giuliani’s administration used regulation to stifle or ban numerous businesses deemed undesirable to the city’s elite. This model has been successfully emulated in other jurisdictions, and it opened the door for the widespread smoking bans implemented by local governments, notably in New York, over the past few years. Some people find smoking in restaurants annoying, ergo it should be banned for all. On that same note, some people prefer to enjoy a good meal without a colicky baby at the next table wailing; “quality of life” demands such infants (and their parents) be shunned to protect the public’s health.

Of course my idea is ridiculous. But when you abandon the protection of private property rights as the basis of government, you invite this sort of nonsense.

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