The winds of illiberalism blow through Chicago

From our man in the Windy City: the latest place to ban smoking in public.

Jonny Thakkar

Topics Politics

Chicago is the latest American city to be laid low by the anti-smoking bug. On 27 October the City Council Health Committee approved a ‘sweeping proposal’ to outlaw smoking in bars and restaurants (1). Since the final details are still up for negotiation, there remains the possibility that Chicago’s notoriously dodgy political establishment will prevent anything from happening. It was recently disclosed that Alderman Burton F Natarus, one of the opponents of a ban, has received ‘$151,830 in campaign contributions from restaurant owners over the last five years’, while in the past four years Mayor Richard Daley has received $94,753 (2).

Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that the force is with the ban’s backers. New York and Boston are the most famous precedents, but in fact there are already 262 American municipalities that ban smoking in restaurants and 193 that ban it in bars (3). In the wider world, the bug has already swept Italy, Holland, Sweden and Norway, and even those bastions of traditional pub culture, Ireland and Britain (4). As Daley was forced to admit: ‘Everybody wants a smoking ban. Everybody wants to be healthy, fine’. So it seems the Chicago Tribune got it right when they said in its editorial supporting a ban that ‘there’s a whiff of the inevitable about this’ (5).

It’s not as if smoking is some kind of unforeseen epidemic, suddenly crippling society and demanding rapid reaction from public health experts. It’s not even getting worse. In fact, in Britain and America the percentage of smokers in the population is the lowest ever recorded (6).

If we consider the arguments for a ban, they eventually collapse into just the sort of illiberalism that Western liberal democratic principles are supposed to prevent. It seems that the anti-smoking police will use any argument they can get their hands on. First they try and claim that stopping people from smoking in restaurants and bars would reduce the costs of treating the various diseases that smokers are prone to. But the people most at risk from smoking are the ‘active’ smokers, who clearly don’t only smoke in restaurants and bars.

When this argument collapses, the anti-smokers turn to rights. No one should be forced to inhale smoke, they argue. But no one is forced to go into an establishment that permits smoking. Well, they say, what about those that work there? Aren’t waiters and barmen forced to work in a smoky environment? You point out nobody is forced to be a barman. In any case, is being a waiter or a barman really worse for your health than being a ski-instructor, typist, construction worker, miner or soldier?

Proponents of a ban in bars and restaurants then claim that not only are people forced to work there, but working there seriously damages their life-expectancy. It’s widely accepted that smoking 20 cigarettes a day damages your health. But how much smoke do you passively inhale over a pint in the pub? And how intensely? Surely, with enough ventilation, you’re not smoking in any sense – just sitting in the same room as someone who is. You can be sitting on a park bench with a smoker and not be passively smoking.

Yet increased ventilation isn’t what campaigners are demanding – they want a ban, pure and simple. Ideally, they’d ban smoking in the open air too. This is what has happened at Manly beach in Australia. And a bill has been tabled in Howard County, Maryland, that would ‘ban smoking within 15 feet of any main public building entrance, at public athletic and entertainment events an in or near areas of private homes used for business or day care’ (7). Passive smoking is not the real issue here.

The real problem is that other people smoke. It irritates your eyes. It puts you off your food. It makes your clothes stink. It stinks. I know plenty of smokers who don’t like it when other people smoke in their presence. That they themselves continue to do so to others is a clear contravention of the Golden Rule of morality: do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. But this kind of anti-social behaviour is everywhere in society: think of having a loud ring-tone, conducting a phone conversation on the train, blaring music out of your earphones or car window, not washing, farting, having a beer belly and being in a tour group. We don’t ban them. Yet.

In John Stuart Mill’s classic liberal theory, a ban on any of these anti-social activities would be illegitimate because none of them seriously infringe the liberty of others. The anti-smoking lobby would make it a criminal offence for a pub to allow smoking even if everyone concerned, customers and staff, expressly said they had no objection to it. You might think that the anti-smoking lobby would have to attack Mill’s principle in order to get their way. But they don’t. In fact, there is no serious argument about principles. The Western world seems to be sleepwalking, drugged, into illiberalism.

A (relatively) new way of thinking about politics is coming to the fore, a political rationality which leaves no room for normative debate. One aspect of this is the much-noted end of ideological debate – or ‘end of history’, depending on your point of view (8) – whereby since the Cold War politics has lost its traditional purpose of either fighting for social transformation, or fighting against a common enemy. Governments have tried to regain this purpose with countless initiatives generally prefaced by the term ‘war on’, like the ‘war on terror’, ‘war on drugs’, ‘war on obesity’ – or ‘war on smoking’.

Another way of thinking about this, though, is to see these governments as acting under a different conception of what politics ought to be about. Foucault calls this ‘bio-politics’ and ‘governmentality’ (9). Rather than thinking of a country’s inhabitants as individuals in whose lives the state isn’t supposed to interfere, a government thinks of itself as exercising beneficent power over a population conceived as a biological phenomenon. The government aims to optimise its population with respect to statistically observable biological criteria like life expectancy (10). Policy goals are taken for granted; just as a doctor doesn’t question whether his task is to save lives and promote health, so a government takes its task to be increasing the health and (quantifiable) wellbeing of its population. Within this framework, inviolable principles of liberal non-intervention simply don’t apply; non-intervention is valuable only insofar as it can be empirically proven to increase wellbeing because people don’t like being interfered with.

The trouble with the ‘war on smoking’, just like the ‘war on obesity’, is precisely that it laughs in the face of arguments about liberal principles – it just doesn’t recognise them as reasonable. If you told your doctor that you objected to heart surgery on principle, he’d write ‘Normal For Norfolk’ in his notebook. Likewise with smoking and other forms of antisocial behaviour: opponents of government action are seen as ‘crazy civil liberties extremists’. As it happens, there are serious problems with the health arguments in this case. But what’s interesting is that this is the kind of argument used by those who, when it comes down to it, simply disapprove of smoking. It’s worth realising, in other words, that this anti-smoking bug is parasitic upon an even more widespread contagion in Western society. If we want to fight illiberal policies, it’s no use simply repeating mantras about non-intervention: what needs to be undermined is the whole conception of government as medicine.

Jonny Thakkar is a PhD student at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought.

(1) ‘Smoking ban given OK but not an all-clear’, Chicago Tribune, 28 October 2005

(2) ‘Restaurants give $150k to smoking ban foe’, Chicago Sun-Times, 6 November 2005

(3) According to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, cited in (1)

(4) For a good survey, see Smoking curbs: The global picture

(5) ‘For a Chicago smoking law’, Chicago Tribune, 27th October 2005

(6) See Action on smoking and health (ASH) Smoking statistics and Factsheet no. 1

(7) ‘Robey readies new smoking ban’, Baltimore Sun, 26 October 2005

(8) See The End of the Future, by Jonny Thakkar

(9) See, eg, Michel Foucault, Sécurité, Territoire, Population, Seuil/Gallimard, 2004

(10) So, for instance, the ASH website reports that the ‘latest [government] targets are to reduce adult smoking rates to 21% or less by 2010, with a reduction in prevalence among routine and manual groups to 26% or less. However, a review of the future of the National Health Service concludes that in order to achieve optimum health outcomes, smoking rates would need to be reduced to 17% of adults by 2011.’

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Topics Politics


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