Testimony

Radley Balko’s D.C. City Council Testimony

District of Columbia City Council

Thanks to Madam Chair and to the D.C. City Council for letting me testify today. I only regret that all nine council members who plan to vote to make the District smoke free had more important things to do than listen to the concerns of the businesses and citizens of this city. And I’d like to thank council member Schwartz for her leadership on this issue.

Here is what is not not at issue today: This is not about the rights of smokers to smoke in public. They are in an establishment someone else owns. Any bar or restaurant in this city may voluntarily go smoke free, and smokers would have no claim against them, except to take their business elsewhere. Indeed, more than 200 businesses in Washington, D.C. have done exactly that.

But this is not about non-smokers rights, either. You don’t have the right to walk onto someone else’s property, demand to be served food or drink someone else has bought, and demand that they serve you on your terms. Free societies don’t work that way.

This isn’t about worker’s rights. The idea that the Washington, D.C. city council is banning public smoking to benefit the city’s waiters, waitresses and bartenders is a canard. There are countless jobs and professions that are far more dangerous than serving food or drink in the presence of secondhand smoke. The people who choose those jobs — cab drivers, fishermen, and police, for example — take those jobs full-well knowing the risks. The health risks associated with secondhand smoke are debatable. But this simple fact isn’t: A waiter or bartender who chooses to work for an establishment that allows smoking knows what kind of environment he’ll be working in.

So what is this debate about? It’s about freedom. It’s about standing up to the healthists, those people who believe the state has not only the right, but the responsibility to police our personal lives for bad habits.

In this case, they want to trample on a business owner’s property rights, on his right to reap the fruits of his investment and his labor as he sees fit, and on his right and the right of his patrons to freely associate with whom they please. Why do they want to do this? They say it’s to protect the “public” from secondhand smoke. But exactly whom are they protecting?

Not the bar or restaurant owner. He could make the whole place smoke-free if he wanted.

Not the employees. They can work elsewhere. Or find a new line of work.

And certainly not the patrons. They’re giving the bar or restaurant their business voluntarily.

The healthists aren’t protecting anyone. What they’re protecting is a “right” for themselves that they’ve fashioned out of whole cloth. They’re fighting to get invited to the party, then make the rules once they get there. They want the so-called “right” to be self-appointed nanny, mother, rule maker, and rule enforcer for everyone else.

It isn’t enough for the smoke-free crowd to merely embrace good habits themselves. They want everyone else to share those habits too — by force if necessary. It isn’t enough for them to simply avoid businesses that allow smoking. They want a king’s fiat to make them smoke free, or shut them down.

Healthists value longevity over a life well-lived. Abstention over indulgence. They believe adding years to the end of your life is the primary reason for living.

I’d have no problem with that if they only applied those values to themselves. But they want to use the law to make the rest of us live by them, too.

This is Nanny Statist government. Its roots go back to alcohol prohibition. It is government that wipes your nose when it’s dirty, tells you to eat your vegetables, and makes sure you’re in bed by ten.

The arguments for a smoking ban could just as easily be applied to public drinking. Indeed, the threat to “public health” by drunken drivers is more immediate and colorable than the threat posed by secondhand smoke. Patrons of smoking bars are there voluntarily. No one knowingly puts himself in the way of a drunk driver. I’d argue that we’d be better off banning public drinking than banning public smoking, but I’d hate to give some people in this room any ideas. And in fact, the group funding the nationwide smoke-free campaigns is also funding anti-alcohol campaigns nudging in that direction.

Let’s put today’s events in perspective. At this moment, we’re meeting in Washington, D.C., the capital of America, the country that’s done more for the freedom of man than any other nation, kingdom, or state in the history of the world. And what are we discussing? A law that would ban a man from opening a business on his own property where people can come smoke a cigarette and drink a beer.

If that sounds petty or silly, that’s because it is. Smokers know what risks they’re undertaking when they light up. Nonsmokers know that the moment they step foot in an establishment that allows smoking, there’s a good chance they’re going to be inhaling secondhand fumes. Legislating the freedom to take those risks away from either of those people simply isn’t the job of government.

The legitimate functions of government are to protect our safety, our liberty, and our rights. It was never intended to be our nurse, our nanny, or our guardian angel. In a free society, government exists to protect our liberty, and that most certainly includes both the liberty to hold bad habits, and the liberty to associate with and cater to other people who hold those same habits.

I’d urge the D.C. city council to resist this tide of tyrannical healthism. Trust the residents and business owners of the nation’s capital to make their own decisions about personal habits. You were elected to govern us, not to baby-sit us.