Several reports appeared in the paper this week about tobacco. This statement alone will instantly divide my readers into two camps: those who tolerate or (gasp!) actually like tobacco, and those who hate it. The latter camp is large, growing, and utterly unconcerned about where government is heading with respect to this still-legal commodity. But let us lay that concern aside for the moment as we consider the reports.
One article reported developments in the wake of the recent prohibition of tobacco inside all California state prisons. The ban covers employees as well as inmates. Instead of making prisons smoke-free, however, the new rules have spawned a black market. Cigarettes are still available inside prisons, but can cost as much as $125 a pack. Naturally, people with access to the outside control this market - primarily prison guards. Some are getting rich off the illicit trade. Cigarettes costing $50 a carton bring a black market price of $1250 - a 2400% profit. (What a country!)
Another article mentioned a smokers' revolt in Honolulu, Hawaii, where a recent state law banning smoking in all public places - including bars and restaurants - has just taken effect. Hawaii is one of sixteen states to ban smoking in this way. The "revolt" took place in O'Toole's Irish Pub where angry smokers openly defied the new law. Fred Remington, vice president of the company that runs O'Toole's, called the protest a modern "Boston Tea Party". Mr. Remington helped the 93-member Hawaii Bar Owners Association file a January lawsuit aimed at overturning the law. The suit claims the state has violated their private property rights.
Bars and cocktail lounges in Washington, DC, are also contending with a complete ban on smoking in their establishments that became effective two months ago. The owner of the Hawk ‘n' Dove on Capitol Hill reported his January sales the worst in 40 years. The Capitol Lounge's owner says his post-ban trade is down 40%. Ban-advocates claimed similar bans in New York and Massachusetts had no effect on business, but the District of Columbia is geographically unique. It's a 10-minute drive to Northern Virginia where a smoke with a glass of ale is an old, honored tradition. DC bars now have cleaner air, but fewer customers.
Is it "Americanism" or is it simply human nature for a society to think it can eradicate "bad stuff" with laws? Americans have had a long run at this, but we're not learning much. Each new law to eliminate X becomes a huge, new law-enforcement/black-market/money-disgorging/society-corrupting war that ends up failing - as has each of the many previous attempts to rub out commodities we don't like.
Banning bad stuff is a popular growth industry because someone usually profits from each new ban. Alcohol prohibition (1919) floated a large criminal enterprise with the ocean of profits. After we gave up and re-legalized booze, the newly enriched mob turned its attention to gambling, drugs, prostitution, labor unions, construction, and other "legitimate" businesses. In our zeal to stamp out Demon Rum, we funded the American Mafia.
A well-oiled campaign got Freon banned during the 1990s. (Critics said it made holes in the ozone layer - a claim later disproved.) Millions of air-conditioners were replaced at a cost of billions. Manufacturers and installers profited handsomely. So did makers of the new refrigerant.
Prohibitions often have unintended consequences. During the Volstead era, gang members were gunning each other down on the streets. The great DDT-ban of the 1960s produced a resurgence of mosquito-borne malaria in warmer climes, resulting in millions of annual deaths - many of them children. We banned asbestos - even in protected situations where it posed no threat - because of hysteria over cancer. Recent reports now suggest that asbestos could have prevented the disastrous 9/11 fires in the World Trade towers that weakened and collapsed the buildings. 1970s building codes had prohibited the use of this proven fire-retardant.
One definition of insanity is repeating the same action, but expecting different results. On that basis we are certifiable, as a society. Despite numerous failures, we are about to try prohibition again. We are very close to deciding that tobacco - the minor comfort that helped GIs win World War II, and a New World fixture for nearly 400 years - is "evil" and must go. The anecdotes above are just a status report. Soon we'll have tobacco cops trying to catch black marketers and behind-the-barn smokers. In an era when terrorists want to blow up our way of life, is tobacco-policing really our best use of public funds?
Part of our difficulty is that the law-enforcement industry generated by a prohibition takes on a life of its own. Legions of policemen, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, bailiffs, clerks, politicians and civil servants have careers and livelihoods that are fully invested in fighting illegal drugs, for instance. Any reconsideration or stoppage of the war on drugs would entail disastrous financial consequences for them. Indeed, winning their war would be a career-downer. This is the rice-bowl problem: i.e., filling rice-bowls outweighs any strategic objectives. Undoing the Volstead Act was possible because it was in effect only thirteen years. The war on booze was going so badly that we were glad to quit it. But quitting the war on drugs - now a century-old fixture - would be a societal convulsion.
Where will prohibition agents strike next? Lots of things are bad (or are thought to be bad) for us. Trans fats are on their way out. Other foods and substances will follow. Even the air we breathe is on the list. A serious effort is under way to declare carbon dioxide - a component of air and the by-product of clean combustion - a "pollutant", on the theory that it causes global warming. Climate "experts" - e.g., Al Gore, Rick Warren, a gaggle of evangelical ministers, and most of the Democratic Party - want to cap carbon-dioxide emissions at levels that would radically alter Americans' lifestyles, raise living costs, eliminate millions of jobs, depress emerging-nation development, further impoverish the world's poor, and unhinge the entire global economy. It would be an economic "holocaust" deliberately engineered for climate-change "prevention" - a strategy on which scientists display no agreement as to either feasibility or need.
But prohibition's greatest risk is irreversible error. Many people oppose capital punishment because they consider an error involving a person's life an intolerable risk. They have a point. Death is the ultimate prohibition. If you were wrong about "banning" a life, you can't correct the error. The Nazis' grotesque extermination campaign was an attempt to rid society of whole races of people - i.e., "prohibition" of undesirable elements - according to Hitler's crack-brained theories. We rightly consider the attempt criminal, but his ideas were not as unique (or as new) as we might imagine. In an earlier era, in fact, they were quite respectable.
The early 20th century eugenics movement - championed by liberal icon Margaret Sanger -gained widespread support from academics, politicians, and corporate philanthropists (including the Carnegie Institute and Rockefeller Foundation). Its objective was to "purify" the superior white race and rid society of "undesirables" via abortion and reproduction control. Oliver Wendell Holmes and Woodrow Wilson - noted progressives of their day - supported this fraudulent "science". President Woodrow Wilson - a Democrat! - segregated the federal Civil Service, relegating blacks to menial jobs. The Rockefeller Foundation supported the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and its racialist "scientists", including Josef Mengele, the infamous "Angel of Death" who later slew thousands in the Auschwitz death camp. American eugenicists actually supported Nazi racial purification objectives during World War II.
Planned Parenthood Founder Margaret Sanger was a racist who saw Jews and colored people as threats to America. Her plan to eliminate undesirable races and groups via abortion is Planned Parenthood's dirty secret. One hears little from today's news media about this prohibition "error" that modern social engineers would like to forget. But some mistakes can't be undone.
Many Americans don't mind prohibiting tobacco because they agree that it's bad for us. This is precisely why I pose it as an argument against prohibition. A century ago the "science" and opinion were all settled on eugenics, too. Free people must defend more than stuff they like. If they don't, their stuff (and maybe they) could be next on the chopping block. Ditto for speech: if we want free speech, we have to support expression of both ideas we like and those we oppose.
The answer to bad stuff (and bad ideas) is education, not prohibition. Free people should be able to choose from a vast menu of commodities, services and ideas - not just those approved by elite rulers. Government serves us well when it furnishes good information. Laws against fraud can protect us from misrepresentation, but the responsibility for good choices should be ours.
Some might think the linkage of prohibition to eugenics and genocide is over the top. But close examination shows that they share a common thread: somebody else knows what's best for us. Right now it's fun to kick smokers around, but we need to think carefully about these things. The trip from eugenics to the ovens was very short.