No matter how noble a cause, efforts to legislate morality have a rather dubious track record.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And on that road, there is, perhaps, nothing more dangerous than legislators committed to making sure those intentions come to pass. However, no matter how noble a cause, efforts to legislate morality have a rather dubious track record.
Yet, no matter how true this may be, governments are always trying to regulate morality by banning behavior they deem wrong. From the prohibition of alcohol to the drug war to anti-dancing campaigns, we have seen this happen throughout US history. And the latest example comes from Hawaii, where buying cigarettes may become an illegal act for roughly 99 percent of the population.
An Affront to Individual Liberty
Legislative season is upon us, and if one lawmaker from Hawaii gets his way, the state may become the first to effectively outlaw cigarettes. Though to be clear, the text of the proposed bill does not actually ban smoking—it just prohibits the sale of cigarettes to anyone under the age of 100.
Already, Hawaii is one of six states that has raised the legal smoking age to 21. The other states include California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Maine. The proposed law takes this concept even further, incrementally raising the legal smoking age to 100. The legal age would rise to 30 in 2020, 40 in 2021, and 50 in 2022, finally reaching 100 in 2024. Vape devices and cigars would be exempt from the ban.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Richard Creagan, who is also a doctor, said, “We, as legislators, have a duty to do things to save people’s lives. If we don’t ban cigarettes, we are killing people.” As a doctor, Creagan is absolutely correct: It is his job to save lives, and he has sworn an oath to do so. As a legislator, however, he does not have the moral authority to tell his constituents which peaceful behaviors they can and cannot engage in, no matter how well-intentioned his motives may be.
We essentially have a group who are heavily addicted—in my view, enslaved by a ridiculously bad industry—which has enslaved them by designing a cigarette that is highly addictive, knowing that it [is] highly lethal…And, it is.
While he is clearly passionate about the topic, that does not make his attempts to outlaw smoking any less of an affront to individual liberty. To be sure, smoking is an unhealthy habit. And while I recommend avoiding it at all costs, that is a decision for the individual to make, not their state representative.
Supporters of the proposed legislation argue that the timing of the bill is right since the rise of tobaccoless vape products has resulted in a decrease in cigarette sales. Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health said:
Because smoking rates are getting so low, we can actually start thinking about what I call end-game strategy, meaning we’re at the point where we can feasibly just make smoking history…We couldn’t even talk about it when there was a large percentage of people smoking because there were too many people affected.
It is important to reiterate that there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting people to quit smoking and live healthier lives. There is, however, something very wrong with prohibiting buyers and sellers of cigarettes from engaging in a peaceful transaction under the threat of force, which is what laws of this nature effectively do.
Already, innovative market alternatives to traditional tobacco products, like vape pens, are directing tobacco users away from cigarettes and towards safer products. This shows that the market is working without the need for regulation. It would be silly, then, for the local government to get involved when things are already getting better on their own. If anything, it shows that government bans are not needed.
Adding to the hysteria, Creagan said:
We don’t allow people free access to opioids, for instance, or any prescription drugs…This is more lethal, more dangerous than any prescription drug, and it is more addicting. In my view, you are taking people who are enslaved from a horrific addiction, and freeing people from horrific enslavement.
You cannot force someone out of their own captivity; each individual is responsible for that. And as well-intentioned as Creagan is, he would be wise to heed the wisdom of Lysander Spooner (1808-1887), who reminded us that vices are not crimes.
Vices Are Not Crimes
In 1875, Lysander Spooner—an abolitionist and founder of America’s only private postal service—wrote an essay called “Vices Are Not Crimes,” in which he famously denounced the government’s proclivity for passing laws that attempt to regulate “unsavory” individual behavior.
While Spooner does not praise “bad” behavior, he does assert that individuals, and to some extent their communities, are responsible for correcting their own actions. And by punishing and outlawing vices, like alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes, no real personal transformation or change can occur. By relying on the state to determine what is right or wrong, individuals completely relinquish personal responsibility.
Spooner argues that it is for this reason that vices, which he describes as “those acts by which a man harms himself or his property,” should not be outlawed by governments. Instead, individuals should be free to learn through trial and error, so long as they are not harming others.
“And, unless he can be permitted to try these experiments to his own satisfaction,” Spooner writes, “he is restrained from the acquisition of knowledge, and, consequently, from pursuing the great purpose and duty of his life.”
In fact, Spooner viewed the freedom to experiment with potential vices with such importance, he believed it was the foundation of individual freedom. He wrote that “unless this clear distinction between vices and crimes be made and recognized by the laws, there can be on earth no such thing as individual right, liberty, or property.” One can only imagine how he would view Hawaii’s new proposal.
In juxtaposition to his definition of “vices,” Spooner defined “crimes” as “those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another.” And unfortunately for Hawaii lawmakers, smoking cigarettes does not fit that definition. So long as smoking is done on private property where no one else’s liberties are being violated, there is no victim and thus, no crime.
No one of us, therefore, can learn this indispensable lesson of happiness and unhappiness, of virtue and vice, for another. Each must learn it for himself. To learn it, he must be at liberty to try all experiments that commend themselves to his judgment.
Author C.S. Lewis also echoed this sentiment in his book God in the Dock: Essays on Theology when he wrote:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.
Rep. Creagan most certainly cares about his constituents, but that does not justify his proposed legislation. Local governments can absolutely encourage individuals to be healthy. But they should not, under any circumstances, ban products or activities it finds undesirable. In order for individual liberty to flourish, people must be free to make their own choices, even if we think they have made the wrong choices.
Brittany is a senior writer for the Foundation for Economic Education. Additionally, she is a co-host of Beltway Banthas, a podcast that combines Star Wars and politics. Brittany believes that the most effective way to promote individual liberty and free-market economics is by telling timely stories that highlight timeless principles.