Christopher Hitchens, a man of great passions and great talents, perhaps the greatest essayist of our age, has died. Among his lesser-known works was a Cato Institute talk, “Mayor Bloomberg’s Nanny State,” delivered at a seminar in New York City on December 10, 2004.
Ten years before that, in his still-thoroughly-leftist era, he offered us this backhanded compliment in the Nation of December 12, 1994:
During the lunacy of the Reagan period, I was impressed by how often it was the Cato Institute that held the sane meeting or published the thoughtful position paper.
Herewith “Mayor Bloomberg’s Nanny State”:
I often take the train from Washington, D.C., to New York and back. A few years ago they put the smoking car on the end of the train so nonsmokers wouldn’t have to go through it to get to other parts of the train. And then the day came when they said, “We’re taking that car off the train altogether.” And I thought, “Now we’ve crossed a small but important line.” It’s the difference between protecting nonsmokers and state-sponsored behavior modification for smokers.
And I thought there was insufficient alarm at the ease with which that was done. Because state behavior modification, no matter what its object, should be viewed skeptically at the very least. There’s serious danger in the imposition of uniformity—the suggestion that one size must fit all.
When the complete ban on smoking in all public places was enacted in California, I called up the assemblyman who wrote the legislation and I said: “I’ve just discovered that bars are not going to be able to turn themselves into a club for the evening and charge a buck for admission for people who want to have a cigarette. You won’t be able to have a private club. You won’t even be able to have a smoke-easy, if you will, in California.”
And he said, “That’s right.”
I said, “Well, how can you possibly justify that?”
And he said, “Well, it’s to protect the staff. It’s labor protection legislation. We don’t want someone who doesn’t want to smoke, who doesn’t like it, having to work in a smoky bar.”
And I said, “You don’t think that if there were bars that allowed it and bars that forbade it, that, sooner or later people would apply for the jobs they preferred, and it would sort of shake out?”
He replied, “No. We could not make that assumption.”
So we have to postulate the existence, if you will, of a nonexistent person in a nonexistent dilemma: the person who can find only one job, and that job is as barkeep in a smoking bar. This person must be held to exist, though he or she is notional. But everyone who actually does exist must act as if this person is real.
There used to be areas, like the West Village in New York or North Beach in San Francisco, that are now dull and boring and have to be policed. And I think that’s a terrible loss. I write better when I have a cigarette and a drink. I’m more fun to be with—other people seem less boring. The life of bohemia, of the small cafe and the little bar that never quite closes, is essential to cultural production. It may seem like a small thing. It doesn’t add very much to the GNP. But if you take it away, you may not know what you’ve lost until it’s too late.
But suppose all this was really a good idea—people might live longer. Suppose all that was really true. There would still be the question of enforcement, that awkward little bit that comes between your conception of utopia and your arrival there. The enforcement bit. You could appoint regulators and inspectors to enforce the law. It would take quite a lot of them, but you could do it. There are such people. I know about them because they’ve come after me.
My editor, Graydon Carter, the splendid editor of Vanity Fair, and I were having a cigarette in his office. And someone on our staff—it’s not very nice to think about it—was kind enough to drop a dime on us. And round the guys came. “You’re busted!” These people are paid by the city, which evidently has no better use for its police.
I think that’s bad enough. But then Graydon went on holiday, and I went back to Washington. And his office was empty. But they came round again and they issued him another ticket because he had on his desk an object that could have been used as an ashtray. In his absence. With no one smoking. But there are officials who have time enough to come round and do that.
The worst part is that the staff has to become the enforcers. The waitresses have to become the enforcers. The maitre d’ has to become the enforcer. He has to act as the mayor’s representative. Because it’s he who is going to be fined, not you. If you break the law in his bar, he is going to have to pay.
So everyone is made into a snitch. Everyone is made into an enforcer. And everyone is working for the government. And all of this in the name of our health.
Now, I was very depressed by the way that this argument was conducted. There were people who stuck up for the idea that maybe there should be a bit of smoking allowed here and there. But they all said it was a matter of the revenue of the bars and the restaurants. That was the way the New York Times phrased it.
In no forum did I read: “Well, is there a question of liberty involved here at all? Is there a matter of freedom? Is there a matter of taste? Is there a matter of the relationship of citizens to one another?”
And something about it made me worry and makes me worry still. The old slogan of the anarchist left used to be that the problem is not those who have the will to command. They will always be there, and we feel we understand where the authoritarians come from. The problem is the will to obey. The problem is the people who want to be pushed around, the people who want to be taken care of, the people who want to be a part of it all, the people who want to be working for a big protective brother.