by Carl V Phillips
Bear with me. This ends up on-topic.
Today I experienced the remarkable coincidence of having twitter arguments (which I never ever do, because trying to converse on twitter is stupid[*]) with two professional colleagues, who are also friends, They would generally be regarded as pretty much, respectively, left-wing and right-wing by many observers, and both (I would venture to say) see themselves as staunch defenders of the rights and freedoms of individuals. Both conversations consisted of me challenging them over statements that struck me as harmfully anti-freedom.
[*To avoid any risk of unintentional offense, I will explicitly point out that this parenthetical is self-referentially ironic, self-deprecating, and obviously false. A gentleman never offends someone unintentionally.]
From the left came an attack on the U.S. government trade negotiators, who are objecting to proposed special tariffs on cigarette imports (probably all tobacco products, actually) by countries in a free-trade zone. Just to clarify, free trade would still allow them to impose sales taxes and other restrictions on tobacco sales, as is common — they would just not be allowed to favor domestic products over imports by adding a special tax on the imports. My friend is an expert economist and acknowledged the great value of free trade, but argued that for these particular products, the health concerns outweigh the value of freedom.
My point (to the extent that I could make it using 20 word bursts) was basically: Who gets to decide what is the one exception to a useful principle of freedom, that one thing that is unlike any other? (This is rather similar to the classic political science question, Who guards the guardians?) One minority, which happens to hold a lot of sway over several governments right now, believes that tobacco (notice I did not say “cigarettes”) is the one item that rises to that level of exceptionalism. Other minorities, some of which hold sway over some governments, are quite certain that the “so bad that it constitutes the unique exception” category is books, or “blasphemous” artwork, or Hollywood movies, or any recreational drug no matter how benign. Still other minorities (mostly without much sway in the world) would make exceptions to free trade (in support of their personal political goals) for certain foods, coffee, children’s cartoons and toys, petroleum from Canada, etc.
My point was not that there is a slippery slope (though that may be true also), but rather is why should anyone get to decide that their favorite cause, no matter how good a case they think there is for it, constitutes the exception to a valuable general freedom (which in this case, the commentator agreed is valuable), especially when many people disagree with their view? The answer is, of course, that despite the timeless insights of Madison, Jefferson, and many others, it is difficult for anyone to accept the value of a principle or process (be it freedom or anything else), no matter how important it is, when it conflicts with their gut view about what people ought to be doing.
There is also the problem that many people subconsciously think their political faction will remain in power or soon be in power and stay there, so there is no worry about the harm that would be caused by someone else imposing their “bad” views about what exceptions should be made.
I had a friend (much older than I, obviously) who had been personally attacked and seriously harmed by the Joseph McCarthy witch-hunts by the U.S. government. And yet he was the staunchest paleo-liberal believer that government was the solution to most every problem. Continuing the irony, his academic and political career was devoted to fighting for particular freedoms in the education system, but he was very much on the losing side when I knew him. His preferred version of the system had been completely crushed by actions of the Bush administration and many states. And yet he remained opposed to, say, free-choice in education that would allow some enlightened people to pursue his vision, because he was subconsciously certain that his side would ascend to power and be able to impose the choice throughout the system.
Coming from the political right today on twitter was an endorsement and continued defenses of this horrible editorial at a magazine/website that is a flagship for the self-proclaimed “libertarian” movement. The commentary criticized — indeed, aggressively ridiculed — prisoner Chelsea Manning (nee Private Bradley Manning, US Army, the Wikileaks leaker) for declaring her new name and gender identity today. Setting aside the author’s glaring ignorance of the difference between gender and sex (you think he might have bothered to learn that before opining on the issue), why would a supposed defender of liberty attack someone for exercising this most intimate of personal freedoms?
Seriously — if they were looking for a way to support the widespread stereotype that people who adopt the political identity “libertarian” are mostly just extremists of a different sort who merely pretend they are all about liberty, then they could not have done much better. Keep in mind that the author and my friend were not criticizing, say, an illiberal government dictate that the press must refer to someone with her preferred gender pronoun even if their stylebook calls for basing that on sex rather than gender. They were attacking her for declaring her new gender and politely requesting that others respect it.
Why would libertarian commentators proactively tout this message that serves no apparent purpose other than announcing, “just as you might have suspected, we really only believe in the liberties that we personally (or our rich patrons) want to exercise — beyond that, we have the same illiberal ‘moral’ preferences as anyone else”? The answer is, of course, in my phrasing of the question. Very few people, left or right, no matter how dedicated to individual rights and freedoms they geninely believe themselves to be, can overcome their personal moral/emotional/subconscious disgust, disdain, or mere patronizing looking-down-upon about the choices that some other people want to make.
And that brings me back to on-topic, as promised. I have often said that the choice of what to smoke/chew/vape/inject/snort/etc. is the most intimate personal choice after the choice of who to sleep with. (I think I may need to put the choice of gender up above it now too, though that is a comparatively rare consideration.) But there is a remarkable tendency of people who engage in one of those behaviors that is under attack from a special-interest minority (say, vaping) to join in the disdain for people who engage in another one of those behaviors that is under attack from a special-interest minority (say, smoking). I notice that the vaper-vs-smoker bickering seems to have flared up again on twitter (I need to get out more, don’t I?).
Most notoriously, the International Harm Reduction Association (now known as HRI) aggressively rejected the adoption of tobacco harm reduction as part of their goal because, well, defending the rights of junkies is important, but tobacco use is just Irredeemably Bad. In an interesting contrast, the pro-cannabis activists seemed to have played an important role, alongside CASAA and others, in finally defeating the proposed California restrictions on e-cigarettes this week. Unfortunately, this may not represent a move toward “we drug users are all in this together, so let’s make common cause”, but rather was because they wanted to protect the availability of hardware that is similar to e-cigarettes for their drug of choice. Once their political position is more secure, I am not sure we can expect their help again.
As one comment on the anti-Manning editorial noted, that commentary represented an attitude that is born of privilege. If someone is quite sure they will never have need to exercise a particular freedom, it is easy to forget all those nice words about individual freedom and react only with personal policy preferences or disgust. Someone who would never consider smoking (or smoking again) finds it all too easy to attack cigarettes, smoking, and smokers and not notice the similarity of that to attacks on their belief in the sacred right to vaping, or smoking weed, or being GLBT.
You see my point, so I will be brief in my conclusions: My dear fellow THR advocates and practitioners, you have seen and felt the threat to freedom from the anti-THR special interests. Realize that you cannot credibly argue for your favored personal freedom while attacking someone who is exercising another very personal freedom. Try to persuade smokers to adopt THR while still respecting them as allies even if they are not persuaded. And perhaps even think a little bit about non-tobacco freedoms and seek common cause with their defenders.