Thursday, November 13, 2014

Smoking Versus Sex -- Want and Need Take Two

I have recently been inundated with a new round of antismoking commercials on television, second in volume only to the heyday of "The Truth" videos funded by the mulitstate shakedown, er, settlement. (See "The Truth") In one of the more recent commercials, a young girls is shown reading some lengthy contract about giving up freedom and all the ill effects, only to have it roll into a cigarette. In another, a cigarette is compared to an abusive boyfriend. In short, all the usual anti-smoking hyperbole is out there for the world to see.

While watching these I had two thoughts. First, that the same people who nod knowingly during these commercials, probably even some who wrote them, were probably the same ones who laughed when the same hyperbole was used for anti-drug purposes. I know many liberals who support the modern health Nazi state who once laughed at the girl smashing her kitchen with a frying pan, or Nancy Reagan and Mr T telling us to "just say no". Amazing how the same over the top message is seen as good and justified when it supports their current crusade, but as excessive and preachy when it cuts against their beliefs.

However, the thought that seemed more significant to me was the second one. As I have said many times ("Twisted Priorities", "Socialism on the Installment Plan", "Practicality Versus Dogma", "Results Do Not Matter", "Something to Consider", "Addicts?", "If They Were Serious ", "A Quick Thought", "A Quick Question", "The Life Coach Culture", "The Great 'What If?' - Advertising, Gullibility, Education, Capitalism and Socialism", "She Won Me Over") smoking does entail risks, but so do many activities which some people find enjoyable. Just because I do not find skydiving fun does not mean I want to see it banned as "deadly", so why can't non-smokers do the same with my smoking? Why does our nation accept some recreational risks as valid and others as "senseless" or "stupid". For example, automobiles can perform every function (or almost every) performed by motorcycles,  and are statistically safer, so why do we not see motorcycle riding as needlessly dangerous?

But I have delved into that list many times, as the links should show, and sadly a few of my examples (such as dietary items increasing risk) have become crusades for some, so I worry about providing arguments for the safety and health nazis to latch onto. Instead, I have decided to provide a single example which shows with the most clear contrast the difference in how we handle risks, and the foolishness of our laws.

Or, to put it in words I thought to myself as I watched that commercial, "why is smoking a senseless risk, to be discouraged by the state, while sex is a right to be protected at all costs?"

Some may be shocked at this comparison, seeing the two as completely different, but hear me out. Sex, whether with one or multiple partners, inside or outside marriage is not necessary to survive, nor is there any negative consequence to avoiding it. It carries with it health risks, especially if promiscuous, risks which can be wholly eliminated by abstinence. In short, it is a voluntary choice which people indulge in but which can be eliminated safely thus completely removing a health risk. In other words, every argument offered against smoking applies here. Why, there is even an analogy to "second hand smoke" as your sexual promiscuity can put others at risk, as sexually transmitted diseases can often be spread by other means.

Now, I am hardly arguing that sex should be banned, nor even than promiscuity should be eliminated. What I am saying is that while smoking is seen as an evil to be stamped out by taxes and PSAs and laws forcing inconveniences upon smokers and preventing store owners from exercising their own discretion about smoking, sex is treated as an inalienable right, with laws written to protect "reproductive freedom", and others intended to keep confidential any and all information about one's sexual behavior. Why, if smoking were treated the way sex is, you would be banned form asking if anyone smoked and those who gave smokers dirty looks, much less prevented them from smoking anywhere, would be shunned by society.

Now some will argue there is a difference here, that sex is necessary to procreate and continue civilization, or that sex is sanctioned by society or the like. So, fine, for our purposes, let us limit it to promiscuous sex, though in reality any sex would still work. Even if we limit it thus, the point is still made, the fact is, smoking and promiscuous sex are not very different at all, yet are treated in incredibly different ways.

Which brings me to my point. In many such cases, the argument is made that one is a "want" while another is a "need", or that one is universally understood as good while the other is not, or something of the kind. All of which is clearly nonsense.

As I said in "One More Meaningless Word and Its Consequences", "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity", "Protean Terminology" and "Weasel Words and Hollow Words", "want" and "need" are meaningless words without a context. A "need" is only a need if you specify a goal. Such as "you need a five dollar bill to buy a fancy coffee". Without a specific context "want:" and "need" mean nothing. Or, rather, as commonly used in politics,  "need" is something of which I approve and "want" is something I do not. And that is clearly the case here. Smoking is met with large scale social disapproval, so it is dubbed a "want" while sexual activity is a "need" because most of our generation lack self control and have been taught sexual promiscuity is acceptable. However, viewed objectively, those are the only real differences.

Which brings me to my point. By what right does a state ban "wants"? If I cannot prove to you something is "necessary" by some measure, what gives the state the right to ban it? In a free society, if no one's rights are harmed, then what justification is there for banning an act simply because some do not see the value in it? Provided someone wants to do it, obviously they consider it of value, so why deny them their wishes if it does not violate the rights of another?

Nor is this entirely a left wing issue. The left may have been most prominent in the health nazi movement and in banning guns, but the right and left both fought the war on drugs, as well as a few social conservative movements which seek pretty far reaching restrictions on behavior. In fact, it is rather amusing to see nominal conservatives arguing for the right to bear arms, yet turn around and argue that drugs should be banned because of the potential to harm oneself or others. Don't they see they are using the same justification which the left uses (with greater applicability) to argue for gun bans? (See "Guns and Drugs") Then again, it does prove my point pretty well. To the right, guns matter and thus are "needs", while they see no purpose to drugs, and so they are "wants" and can be banned. Sadly, the right (and the left as well) fails to see how the same argument can so easily be used against those things they consider of value.


If you doubt my final argument, think of how many who fought against smoking are horrified at the restrictions being placed on foodstuffs. Yet they laid the foundation for laws they now find extreme and unthinkable. If one substance can be banned for our own good, to protect us from ourselves, then why not another? As I have argued many times ("Slippery Slopes", "Inescapable Logic", "Pyrrhic Victories") once a principle i accepted, it runs to its logical conclusion, and so, one ban justifies another, and those who argue for banning something they find worthless are likely to find the same argument later turned against something they treasure. Which is why, though it means accepting behavior with which we may not agree at times, freedom is the only viable choice, as any other path leads eventually to total slavery. (See "Why Freedom Is Essential" , "Another Look At Exploitation", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "Harming Society", "In Loco Parentis", "Government by Emotion", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "Humility and Freedom".)


  1. The comparison of smoking to promiscuous sex on the basis that both behaviors can impact other people is missing one vital component, namely consent. It is quite a stretch to say that promiscuous sex impacts those who are not voluntary parties to the act, whereas smoking has the potential to affect those who aren’t consensual to the act depending on the circumstances. That vital difference renders the comparison weak, IMO.

    Having said that, however, there’s no question but that there’s been a campaign against smokers that is nothing short of flat-out bullying. Aside from public spaces it should be the right of property owners to decide whether they will permit smoking on their properties. To a large extent the anti-smoking crusade has been justified by the Left on the argument that it is a “public” health issue, and that non-smokers have to pay for the medical expenses of smokers. That, of course, is a self-made problem easily resolved by ceasing to socialize the costs of healthcare, but the lefties aren’t about to give up their wealth transfers or the excuse it gives them to control other peoples’ behaviors.

    Finally, you said:
    >>”To the right, guns matter and thus are "needs", while they see no purpose to drugs, and so they are "wants" and can be banned.”

    Speaking as one from the Right, that is a mischaracterization of our position, IMO. A gun may or may not be a need, but we are asserting that it is our right, a right that emanates from the natural right to self-defense. The fact that the founders saw fit to protect the right to bear arms and certain other, but limited, rights in the Constitution illustrates that they recognized a certain natural hierarchy when it comes to rights.

  2. I suppose I should have made it more clear that the comparison of promiscuity to smoking was not a perfect analogy. I grant, "second hand smoke" -- assuming it is the lethal threat that some claim -- strikes all and sundry, while the fallout of promiscuous sex hits only those who have sexual relations, but there is still an analogy there. I can feel the harm of second hand smoke (again, assuming it is great) without smoking. Likewise, I could be fully faithful, yet a secretly promiscuous spouse could bring to me the consequences of promiscuity. Thus, both can harm those completely uninvolved in the practice, which was the point I was trying to make.

    As far as guns are concerned, I have never heard anyone make that argument as you state it. Yes, everyone declares it is a right, then explains why. They make a case for need the instant after they stop saying "right". Have you ever heard anyone argue for gun rights who did not mention defense against crime? Against oppressive government? Hunting? Something else? I have not. So it is a bit dishonest to argue the "need" part of the argument does not exist.

    And whether "right" or "need", the fact remains that all the arguments offered against drugs, that they are not "necessary", that they create the potential for harm, that they can be easily misused, that we need to prevent anyone from having them to protect the few who would abuse them, etc, are identical to the arguments used against guns, and so -- whether a right or not -- once you accept the arguments against drugs, you have cut the legs out from under any defense of gun rights.

    1. The smoking issue is a tough one for me because it’s one of those issues that many on the Left have adopted as a political crusade, which means the campaign against it defies all reasonable logic and respect for the freedom of others. For that reason alone I instinctively want to come to the defense of smokers; however, my husband is a lifelong asthmatic, and the exposure to second-hand smoke is not necessarily a trivial thing where he is concerned. Now, he supports freedom and the right of private property owners to allow smoking if they choose, and he’s perfectly willing to avoid any place that might cause him a problem, but of course that isn’t always possible in a public place (like a jury room or an airport, for instance) if there are no restrictions on smoking.

      One of the ironic things about the anti-smoking crusade is that it seems to have greatly amplified the sensitivity people have to second hand smoke because they are no longer used to being around it. We used to occasionally go to restaurants or bars where smoking was unrestricted, and though it was uncomfortable for him there was no fear of ending up in the emergency room. That’s changed and we could never do that now. So I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think the second-hand smoke thing is completely without merit, but I do think it’s been abused and there should be compromises that respect the liberties of both smokers and non-smokers.

      It seems to me that you are using tortured logic to equate gun ownership with recreational drug use. The framers of the Constitution/BOR, in their wisdom, only sought to ensure the people’s protection of a very limited list of behaviors, because to make us all responsible for the protection of certain behaviors is, in the eloquent words of the venerable Joe Biden, a BFD. What’s left to the states is meant to be decided by the people of those states, who have the option of guaranteeing the protection of certain behaviors through their own Constitutions if they so choose.

      Of course not all behaviors should be seen as equal in their value. The ‘right’ to play hopscotch is not on par with the right to eat. The ‘right’ to chew gum is not on par with the right to freely travel. The less essential to our fundamental rights to life and liberty a behavior is, the less we are willing to tolerate its potential to interfere with the ‘rights’ of others. That’s just common sense; hence few would argue that the people have the right, for example, to ban a host of unessential behaviors in a prison setting with relatively modest justification, while a much higher threshold would have to be met to deny the right to food, air, bedding, or access to legal help, assuming they could be denied at all.

      The attempt to equate recreational drugs to the right to bear arms having failed (at least IMHO), the debate boils down to the perception of citizens with respect to the potential for this behavior to impact them or others. You know all of the arguments so I won’t go into them again, and you would disagree and evoke counter arguments of your own. That’s the process that takes place when there is not unanimous acceptance of what constitutes a “right.” It’s what is supposed to happen.

      You asked: “By what right does a state ban "wants"?”

      What about those who “want” to not be at the mercy of someone who is dangerously high on PCP or someone who is desperate to steal because they need their next fix? Don’t their wants carry equal weight to those who want to get high?

      The proponents of legalizing recreational drugs have taken the path of trying to frame this as a debate about rights because that spares them from having to win the argument by convincing others that drug use has no impact on anyone other than the user, and that’s a difficult if not impossible argument to sell.

  3. There is a lot there to which I should respond, and I think I won't be able to fit it all in a single comment. Actually, I may even write a followup essay, as some of what you said is part of a common argument in the drug decriminalization debate, and so merits a more thorough examination.

    First, this is not just about "recreation". When my doctor decided I was a "drug seeker" and left me in excruciating pain and opiate withdrawal three times in about 18 months, I was not attempting any sort of recreation, yet our laws left me no source of necessary medication. In fact, our drug laws, and our habit of prosecuting doctors for "overprescribing" probably inspired his reticence to give me needed medication. (It is certainly why I can only get 2 months of medicine at a time, and must take a urine test every other visit, to prove I am taking my drugs and not selling them. In short, why I am treated as a presumptive criminal simply because I need painkillers.) So the term "recreational drugs" is a misnomer, and akin to saying "assault rifle" or "cop killer bullets", a way to emotionally charge an argument by forcing in assumptions. (And as I argue not just for legalizing marijuana or cocaine, but for doing away with all restrictions on purchase for prescription drugs as well, this is even more true in my case than n that of some others such as NORML, who have a very limited scope.)

    Another issue is the argument that drugs make people steal. It is no more true than that guns make people kill. Drug users make drugs an excuse for stealing, but thieves also blame gambling and drinking and anything else. People steal because they are thieves who need money. Drugs may be the reason they need money, but it is hardly the only one. If anything, making drugs illegal increases the probability of drugs and theft being associated because (1) it radically increases the cost of drugs (my prescription is $30 before insurance, it could sell on the street for over $1000) and (2) because drugs are illegal, many who continue to use them come from groups more prone to law breaking. This does not say there is any causative factor here, just that the increased cost, combined with drugs being more common among criminally inclined classes likely increases the incidents where theft is committed by drug users. But that still does not mean drugs cause theft, simply that costly drugs give those prone to theft an excuse to give the courts when seeking leniency.

    Then we come to "impact on others". If you allow that a law can be created whenever something has an "impact on others", you might as well forget the word "rights" as the state will have unlimited power. I will grant, drug use has an impact on others. So does absolutely every decision you make unless you live as a hermit. (And the choice to withdraw and live as a hermit has an impact on others anyway.)

    I know you don't believe my argument that the logic of gun control and drug laws is identical, but you gave it to me yourself. If I own a gun, even if I am careful, someone else may find it and harm themselves. See, the "impact on others" standard is the same as that used by those seeking to ban guns.


    1. (Continuing...)

      As I said, it is a longer, more involved argument than I can get into here, and I am, quite honestly, a bit tired as work was a bear today. So I think I shall take one more stab at showing why we must limit laws to protection of rights, as any other standard opens the floodgates by which the state can become omnipotent, and no amount of line drawing or common sense or community standards or anything else will stop it, as once you accept a premise, it will inevitably run to its conclusion, and anything other than a very limited state which protects rights and nothing else is based upon the same logic as the worst tyranny imaginable.

      But that is a larger task than I can undertake tonight, and certainly can't fit in a comment, so I will probably write tomorrow.

      Until then, have a good night/day, depending on when you read this.

    2. I must correct myself. I say "People steal because they are thieves who need money". I should say "People steal because they are thieves who want money", or, more concisely, "People steal because they are thieves." I really don't need the extra clause.

    3. I will look for your post, Andrew, but I’d like to respond to what you wrote here and maybe you keep my comments in mind as you write:

      In your original post you said:

      “…it is rather amusing to see nominal conservatives arguing for the right to bear arms, yet turn around and argue that drugs should be banned because of the potential to harm oneself or others.”

      That premise suggests that to me that you were talking about recreational drug use, because no conservative I know of has suggested “banning” medicinal drugs. I use the term “recreational” not to be manipulative but to make a clear and important distinction about what it is we’re debating. Yes, it’s true that drugs intended for medicinal purposes are being regulated because of their propensity to be misused, but regulated and banned are two different things.

      I’m not going to argue that pharmaceutical products aren’t over-regulated, but that’s a different subject and I will rise to the defense of conservatives here because I seriously doubt that they are wholly or mostly responsible. As I mentioned, my husband is an asthmatic and so is my son. They, too, can only get a limited amount of medicine at any one time (typically 90 days max), which can be especially problematic because it’s helpful if not necessary to keep emergency inhalers in multiple locations (office, cars, purse, etc.) to be certain it’s there when it’s needed. If it appears to the doctor that he is using too much medication he is often required to visit the doctor before being allowed to refill his prescription, which is annoying and expensive. So while I won’t presume to understand the particular pain and humiliation you’ve dealt with I do think I can relate to the frustration. In my family’s case it is perplexing because as far as I know asthma drugs are not used recreationally, and therefore not likely to be abused for the fun of it.

      There is a fair argument to make that drugs are over-regulated, just as many things are over-regulated. I am annoyed every time I am unable to turn left at an intersection with a traffic light because of a red arrow that disallows me from doing so even though I can see for a quarter mile and there are no cars coming. Who’s to blame for that? The city installed the light in what I would describe as an overly zealous effort to fulfill its obligation to protect its citizens; but the fear that drivers will take unreasonable risks when turning left is the consequence of seeing it actually and repeatedly occur. In other words, the rest of us are paying the price for the stupidity, recklessness and irresponsibility of those who turned left when they shouldn’t have, causing death or injury to others. Or with respect to drugs, you are paying the price for those who abused them. Gov’t may be over-reacting, but the fault begins with those who couldn’t be trusted to act responsibly in the first place. THEY deserve to be the primary object of our anger, not so much innocent citizens invoking the power of the city or state for their own protection.

    4. >>”Another issue is the argument that drugs make people steal. It is no more true than that guns make people kill.”

      Well I would hardly frame it as “drugs MAKE people steal;” but the reality is that in addition to potentially impairing people’s judgment, abuse of drugs can lead to two conditions that significantly increase the odds that someone will turn to crime: (1) addiction; and (2) unemployment. Those are facts.

      >>”If you allow that a law can be created whenever something has an "impact on others", you might as well forget the word "rights" as the state will have unlimited power.“

      First, abuse/misuse of power notwithstanding, “the state” in this country is the citizenry acting through its elected representatives, not some nebulous outside force inflicted on us against our will. So to say that the state has unlimited power is to say that citizens have unlimited power. But of course, that isn’t true given that federal and state constitutions expressly limit the state’s power. Furthermore, we have to assume that people will use the power of the state to please, at a minimum, the majority (and of course constitutions are critical to defend against the tyranny of the majority). But to answer the question implied in your statement, yes people DO have the right to take action on that which impacts them. To suggest otherwise is to simply advocate a sort of reverse tyranny where we must all render ourselves defenseless against the whims of others. I think we can assume that the impact people are most likely to respond to would be adverse impact, but that’s a subjective thing. If someone like Michael Moore should decide he wants to walk around naked he might not agree that the impact is adverse as the rest of us undoubtedly would.

  4. My apologies for the delay in writing a lengthier reply, between work and Thanksgiving and family and son, simply have not had time. I will try my best to write it in the near future, as soon as I have enough free time.

    I never said the state was some nebulous entity, clearly it is made up of people. On the other hand, unless you have a direct participatory democracy where everyone votes directly on every law, it is not all of the people, but some small subset, which means that giving the state unlimited power is not to give "power to the people" as you suggest, but power to a small clique that is good at getting elected. So, I think your first point is a bit far off the mark. You seem to claim I am afraid of empowering the citizens who are the government, I suggest that I am frightened of empowering a very small subset.

    Then again, I also oppose giving unlimited power to the people as a whole as well. One need only think of the term "mob rule" or look at a riot to realize the majority can be just as stupid and dangerous and harmful as a small group, which is why I continually argue for very limited, and very clearly defined, powers for government. If you simply say "we can stop things that affect others", you are placing no restrictions other than what you can get past the majority. And recall, in the past, that has included lynching, witch hangings/burnings/etc, pogroms, expropriation, slavery, and a whole host of things I think we could do without. And so, simply to rely upon the common sense or good will of the majority is foolish.

    Which brings me back once more to my proposition that we need to have very clearly defined limits to laws. I favor very simply laws which prevent the use of force theft or fraud against others. Period. If you want to go beyond that, I have two requirements. (1) The law must be clearly defined so that we know what it does and does not make illegal (antitrust laws are a great example of laws that basically make anything illegal) and (2) the underlying rationale of the law, so we can see what it implies.

    The last is perhaps not so clear, but is a point I have been making for some time. For example, abortion laws of today, and even the silliness about "reproductive rights" that extends laws to all sorts of things, all of that was inevitable when Griswold was decided, as the logic of that case, even if they tried to limit it to married couples and contraceptives, implied all the rest. Similarly, once the interstate commerce clause was used not to strike down barriers, but to regulate trade, the whole intrusive federal economic program was inevitable, it is simply the logical extension of the reasoning which allowed regulation. And, there are hundreds of other examples.

    This is why I say if one accepts drug laws, then they accept gun laws as well. The logic of both are the same. If you say "I must enact drug laws because drugs make it more likely an individual will harm someone", you cannot logically object when someone says the same about guns. You no doubt will, and will bring up rights and limits to power and so on, but the fact remains, the argument to ban them is more consistent with the logic already accepted and, in the long run, the more consistent argument always wins.

    I know I won't convince you of this, but there are so many cases which show it to be true, I cannot argue otherwise, which is why I continue to make my case even when it is rejected. Well, perhaps I will try again when I write my longer reply.

    Until then, hope you enjoyed Thanksgiving and have a good holiday weekend.

    1. Perhaps I can make a case using one of the most awful bits of legislation in recent history, the campaign finance reform/incumbent protection act.

      There are two ways in which the first amendment was destroyed, and this law makes it most obvious.

      First, read literally, the first amendment makes all speech protected. However, there were two avenues of attack. First, "common sense" limits, such as banning "fighting words" and so on. Second, by redefining speech to include actions and other non-verbal acts. The first made it possible to extend those "common sense" bans until it was possible to even limit political speech, the speech most obviously protected by the first amendment. The second attack, by making speech so wide a definition that we had to allow bans or else nearly anything would be allowed.

      In both cases, by introducing a very small exception, a little twisted logic, the stage was set for ever increasing limits. As I have argued, the most consistent position won. And this in a case, like guns, where there is explicit constitutional protection.

      By the way, since many people don't get why I think banning "fighting words" or "crying fire in a crowded theater" is wrong, my argument is, both are completely permissible, legally allowed speech, but that does not mean you are not responsible for the consequences. In other words, I believe we have a right to those acts, but must face the music if we exercise that right. It is a small difference, but crucial. (See , and for a longer argument.)

    2. I did enjoy my Thanksgiving, Andrew, and I hope you enjoyed yours as well.

      As typically happens this debate has tentacled (I’m inventing a new word) into such a broad range of subjects that it’s getting hard for me to follow, so I will resist the temptation to respond to every point in your answer and skip to this:

      >>“Which brings me back once more to my proposition that we need to have very clearly defined limits to laws. I favor very simply laws which prevent the use of force theft or fraud against others. Period.

      That’s a very libertarian-esque position that sounds nice in theory but doesn’t work in reality. I assume that’s why the Founders rejected such an approach. In the first place it completely ignores basic human nature, and the continual competition among people in societies to assert what they believe to be their rights. Secondly “defining limits” to laws is its own form of tyranny. It amounts to laws restricting laws.

      Of course there should be SOME limits on what people can do via government. That’s why the Founders incorporated the Bill of Rights. And states can do the same. But the Founders understood how presumptuous and autocratic it would be for them to micromanage people in the states by dictating a broad range of laws they weren’t allowed to have.

      You are certainly entitled to favor whatever approach to laws that you think is best, of course, and to make your case in the hopes of selling it to the rest of us. It’s only when you move from “favoring” it to insisting on it that leads to problems.

    3. I was working on another essay, and realized one of the footnotes offers a good response to one of your objections. So, rather than write the same thing twice, please allow me to quote myself:

      I am afraid when I say the state must be limited, or laws must follow certain rules, that I am often misinterpreted. When I speak that way, I am arguing for the ideal. As I wrote in "Why I Am Not a Libertarian", I do not believe in the libertarian ideal of forcing liberty from the top down. I find that approach quite contradictory. It is why I wrote in "Reforms, Ideal and Real" (and earlier in "The Benefits of Federalism"), that while I believe in the ideal of minimal government, I wish to see it implemented through the gradual understanding of the people. Ideally, I wish everyone would wake up tomorrow agreeing with my philosophy and change the state. Realistically, I would like to see us move to a true federalist system, devolve power to as local a basis as possible, prohibit a few of the most dangerous legal follies, and then allow the people to discover that my philosophy of minimal government is not without foundation, and -- as one area after another experiences some benefit from it -- have other areas follow suit. In short, to reap the long term benefit of true federalism. (See "Minimal Reforms".) Thus, though I speak in imperative terms, I am arguing about the ideal, or about the inevitable consequence of ignoring these rules, not trying to imply people must be made to obey them. Maybe the best analogy would be to a doctor. When he says "you must lose weight" he is not saying you will be forced to do so, but rather if you do not, there will be dire consequences. It is in that sense I speak as I do.