Harm's a two way street

Walter E. Williams

11/19/2003 12:00:00 AM - Walter E. Williams

The largest losers of America's anti-tobacco crusade aren't tobacco companies and smokers, it's the American people who are incrementally giving up private property rights. You say, "Hold it, Williams, I agree that people have the right to smoke and harm themselves, but they don't have the right to harm others with those noxious tobacco fumes!" Let's look at it, because harm is a two way street.

If you're allergic to tobacco smoke or just find its odor unpleasant, and I smoke in your presence, I harm and annoy you. However, if I'm prohibited from smoking a cigarette in your presence, I'm harmed because of a denial of what I find a pleasurable experience.

There's an obvious conflict. One of us is harmed. How can it be resolved? There are several ways. You might consider the harm I suffer trivial compared to yours. You could organize a sufficiently large number of people and lobby lawmakers to enact smoking bans in bars, restaurants and workplaces. Alternatively, I might consider the harm you suffer trivial, and organize a bunch of people and lobby lawmakers to mandate that smoking be permitted in bars, restaurants and workplaces.

Let's think about this for a moment. If you owned a restaurant, and did not allow smoking, wouldn't you find it offensive if a law were enacted requiring you to permit smoking? I'm guessing you'd deem such a law tyranny. After all, you'd probably conclude, it's your restaurant, and if you don't want smoking it's your right. Similarly, I'd deem it just as offensive if smoking were allowed in my restaurant and a law were enacted banning smoking in restaurants.

The totalitarian method to resolve the conflict is through political power and guns. In other words, the group with the greatest power to organize government's brute force decides whether there'll be smoking or no smoking in restaurants. Totalitarians might justify their actions by claiming that bars, restaurants and workplaces deal with the public, and thus the public should decide how they'll be used. That's nonsense. Just because an establishment deals with the public doesn't make it public property.

The liberty-oriented method to resolve conflict is through the institution of private property. In fact, conflict resolution is one of the primary functions of private property, namely it decides who gets to decide how what property is used in what way. Put another way: Who may harm whom in what ways? In a nutshell, private property rights have to do with rights held by an owner to keep, acquire and use property in ways so long as he doesn't interfere with similar rights held by another. Private property rights also include the right to exclude others from use of property.

Under the liberty-oriented method of private property, as a means to conflict resolution, we'd ask the question of ownership. If the owner wishes his restaurant to be smoke-free, it is his right. Whether a smoker is harmed or inconvenienced by not being allowed to smoke in his restaurant is irrelevant. Similarly, if a restaurant owner wishes to permit smoking, it is his right, and whether a nonsmoker is harmed or annoyed is also irrelevant. In the interest of minimizing possible harm either way, it might be appropriate for restaurant owners, by way of a sign or other notice, to inform prospective customers of their respective smoking policy. That way, customers can decide whether to enter upon the premises.

In today's America, the successful anti-tobacco campaign has become a template for conflict resolution through the forceful imposition of wills through the political system. It's part of a continuing trend of attacks on private property rights. Private property rights are the bulwark for liberty, and should be jealously guarded and not be sacrificed for the sake of expediency.