by Carl V Phillips
There is an interesting debate-free debate going on among vaping advocates, about how to respond to pro-ecig tobacco controllers and similar authorities. There is concern about whether it is wise to embrace and exalt tobacco control crusaders — people and organizations who have been a part of the junk science, vile tactics, and authoritarian approaches used in that crusade — because they have taken some kind of pro-ecig stance. Most of the concerns expressed about that embrace are along the lines of:
- We can expect they will turn against vaping as soon as it is expedient to do so. Tobacco control is a relentless grinding machine with extremist goals and strong party discipline. It only moves only in one direction, taking whatever it can get for the moment and then more later.
- Most in that pro-ecig faction do not support genuine freedom to vape, let alone use other products. They merely believe people are supposed to quit smoking by any means necessary. They have already demonstrated that they support all sorts of restrictions on e-cigarettes and vaping so long as those do not hugely impact the role of vaping as a “cure” for smoking.
- Many vapers are not happy about getting into bed with those who were recently deploying junk science and coercion to punish them, just a few years ago when they were smokers.
- There is an ethical problem in allying with people who never speak out against the lies and hatred flowing from their own house, except when those happen to be inconvenient for their pro-ecig political views. For anyone who supports using a scientific approach to resolve scientific questions, their unwillingness to condemn bad science is similarly troubling.
- Vaper advocates are foolish to try to go it alone rather than allying with other tobacco product users, including smokers, as well as those fighting public health authoritarianism on other fronts. Such alliance is not going to be possible if those other populations are alienated by enthusiastic embrace of some of their avowed enemies.
Notice that these points do not argue against taking maximal advantage of actual information created by pro-ecig tobacco control organizations, agencies, and individuals. They relate to the growing “embrace and exalt” relationship, and to endorsing their normative pronouncements.
The arguments on the other side of the potential debate are fairly easy to craft:
- When your cause faces an existential crisis, you should celebrate anyone who might further it right now, and hope you can even survive long enough to face the reckoning from that. An iron curtain later is better than having to fight the enemy on the beaches in a few months, to borrow a few phrases from an iconic smoker.
- Those voices and power centers exist, so even though you realize they still behave like tobacco controllers and are not true friends, we might as well use what is politically expedient and try to further empower them.
- Once someone offers any support for a cause and is exalted for it, it tends to promote genuine commitment. Asking someone to donate three dollars to a political candidate is not about the money, but about increasing the chance he will vote, speak up, and campaign in favor of the candidate in the future. Moreover, other tobacco controllers might disown their pro-ecig colleagues leaving them no choice but to turn away from the dark side.
I meant it when I said I was crafting those arguments and that this “debate” is largely free of debate. I am not paraphrasing that second list from anyone’s “The case for exalting pro-ecig tobacco controllers” essay, because there is no such. It is not difficult to see why: If only the statements about expedience are presented, it comes across as rather naive. If the caveats about anticipating a reckoning and co-opting people are mentioned, there is an “observer effect” problem: If you admit that is what you are doing, it tends to undermine its chance of working.
I am pretty much alone among those in my lane (call it, I suppose, “the opinion leaders of the opinion leaders in THR”) in having addressed these issues. I have never endorsed a particular big-picture position — it is rather too complicated and subtle to boil down to a position, especially since the situation varies based on the particular organization/agency/individual — but I have expressed several of the concerns in that first list. Some of those in this lane do not address this at all simply because they do not engage in political science or tactical analysis. But others have not addressed it, I think, because they endorse the points in the second list but do not want to openly say so for the reasons noted. Thus, there is no debate. There is instead a tendency — infuriating to many — to act as if the debate were settled in favor of the “embrace and exalt” position.
You can find more about several of these points — the overall debate and about my role in my lane — in two recent posts by Simon Clark (be sure to read my comments on each, and the very good comments by others, in addition to the posts).
What I have probably never made clear before, however, is that beyond the concerns that appear in that first list, I have a much more fundamental concern that stems from a somewhat deeper political science issue, that of process. Questions of process are generally overshadowed by discussions of immediate policy questions, but they really should not be. To appreciate the concept, consider a meme that has been kicking around, that President Trump is really going to be grateful to President Obama for expanding what is acceptable to do by executive order without the consent of Congress. Setting aside the unlikely election outcome and whatever you might think about Obama’s policies, I trust you get the idea. G.W. Bush dramatically increased the drift toward an imperial presidency, and instead of reversing that acceleration, Obama took advantage of it and further solidified it. That is great right now if you like Obama’s policies, but not so good if you do not like the preferences of the next guy. Process matters.
We can shorthand the main process question for present purposes as being a conflict between authoritarian approaches and libertarian ones. (The latter is a more complicated concept than often portrayed, which I will circle back to.)
To provide concrete context, consider a recent post by Mike Siegel in which he argues that FDA should have already stepped up to do something about e-cigarette battery safety rather than pursuing amorphous anti-ecig efforts as they are doing. I use this illustration merely because it was a recent clear example of calling for a potentially beneficial authoritarian solution to a problem (set aside questions of whether it is actually that big a problem, and whether FDA actually has the capability to craft an authoritarian solution if given the authority). The process issue is this: If FDA gets the authority to prohibit dangerous e-cigarette batteries, there is no conceivable scenario under which that process does not also give them the authority to ban “dangerous” high-powered mods or “dangerously” large tanks. Process changes, enacted in pursuit of a particular policy, change what authorities can do regarding other policies. In this case, it does not require great imagination to figure out how that authority would be used by those in power at FDA.
While endorsement of pro-ecig authoritarians is not really a process decision, it is an endorsement of a particular process and so has similar implications. It is one thing to be happy that some of your general views are shared by some tobacco control organizations (which are all fundamentally authoritarian), government agencies, and individuals associated with those operations. But exalting those actors as the definitive arbiters of the issues, as has become a common tendency, implicitly concedes that whatever they decide to say or do is right. Embracing their actions implicitly concedes that their authoritarian approaches are legitimate. As with process changes that give someone more power, such authority, once granted, is very difficult to claw back later.
It ought to be obvious that utopian fantasies that roughly translate into “if I had sovereign powers, I could fix this so easily” are not a good basis for assessing whether greater government authority and influence is really a good idea. It should be clear that when power is granted to someone to solve a particular problem by force, he or his successor also has the power to undo that solution, or to do many other things with that power. As an example, consider Sweden: Ceding the THR space to the authorities was just fine when those in power were not anti-snus and even defended it against the EU and removed the misleading “warning” labels, but it is not looking so good now that the authorities are strongly anti-snus, as tobacco controllers have relentlessly pushed them to be.
It is very easy to fall into the utopian view if you never seriously analyze governance. The history books and newspapers are all about stories of whether the right people or wrong people had power. We get happy endings whenever the “right” people have unfettered authority, so we should focus on fighting about who has power rather than about the existence of power. Indeed, it is disturbingly easy to fall into that view even if you are broadly and deeply educated.
A few years ago, I had a friend who was a professor of childhood education who contributed to some of the great innovations in the field of the second half of the 20th century, and was one of the smartest people I have ever known. He was a classic paleo-liberal utopian, despite having every possible reason to distrust government. He was a target of McCarthyism, and not metaphorically. Early in his life he was attacked by Senator McCarthy’s operations and by the United States House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee. When I last knew him, he was winding down his career in a world where G.W. Bush and his crony capitalist colleagues were sweeping away his and most other improvements and innovations in elementary education by fiat (the “No Child Left Behind” movement was largely designed to enrich the for-profit sector that surrounds elementary education, most notably Bush’s brother’s company). Along the way, he spent his life clashing with reactionary education authorities in government who were (and are) doing a terrible job, but were secure in their positions nonetheless.
It is difficult to imagine anyone who had not been imprisoned or bombed being more intimately familiar with how government power is used for bad purposes. Yet he maintained a near-utopian faith in the power of government to fix the problems in his field and more generally — it was always just a matter of giving the right people lots of authority. Now in fairness, when it comes to the vast enterprise of elementary education, it is necessarily mostly about government, since universal education can only be provided collectively; indeed, some authoritarian regimes do a great job with it. There is some opportunity for fixing bad policy via libertarian options (charter schools and such), but you cannot simply refuse to accept government authority.
But there is no such argument to be made about THR and other consumer choices, where it is not necessary to have control by authorities. Unlike with schools, highways, and other mass infrastructure, almost every matter related to personal consumption choices (other than the basic rules of honest commerce that must be enforced by government in any healthy economy) includes a viable option of having no substantial government involvement. Thus every question of involvement by the authorities — including not just rules, but them merely being accepted as authoritative arbiters of information — needs to be thought of in terms of, “should we embrace authority because the net effects will be beneficial, and do we trust those in power to keep it that way?”, rather than merely in terms of “how do we make the inevitable control by the authorities as positive as possible?”
The pro-ecig tobacco controllers and other “public health” people do not ask the former of these questions about anything. In their world, everything should either be banned or mandatory, or at least — given that bans and mandates are often not actually possible — aggressively encouraged or forcibly discouraged. Embracing their approach when you happen to like their policy views is a default decision about the first of those questions. It is a momentous process decision.
Opting for authority may work out great for a moment — “rah-rah Public Health England, for taking the ‘aggressively encouraged’ position on e-cigarettes!” — but what happens when the leadership changes or gets strong-armed in a different direction? That is the “Trump’s executive orders” or “Swedish government turning anti-snus” scenario. And it may not even require that. In a few years we will hit “peak ecig”, where most of the potential smoking cessation via e-cigarettes has happened in populations where vaping took off. At that point, the natural tendencies of the authoritarians who endorsed e-cigarettes for smoking cessation will be to start clamping down on those now “unnecessary” vaping rights.
Moreover, even before any of those happen, embracing the friendly authorities as the arbiter of people’s proper intimate choices implicitly empowers rival authorities who have other ideas. Consider the situation in the UK, where this is most clearly playing out: Even as some British public health authorities go with the “aggressively encourage” approach to e-cigarettes, Wales enacted severe restrictions this week (some with the blessing of the supposedly pro-ecig ASH Wales), and the EU is bringing in major restrictions which were actively supported by the UK government’s representative to that process. Accepting that this is properly a fight among different government authorities and “public health” activists implicitly endorses the position that whichever authority carries the day has the right to decide what is proper. And whatever they decide differently tomorrow is also proper.
The conflict is more subtle in the USA because pro-ecig authoritarians are relatively rare. Still, we hear testimony at regulatory hearings along the lines of, “you, Mr. Government Official, need to stay away from our e-cigarettes and let us make our own decisions, which we can do better without government intervention …. and just look at what Public Health England says about them!”
[Update, the need for which was made apparent by one of the comments: In case it is not obvious, Public Health England made a political decision about what policy position they wanted to endorse and commissioned a report by people who support that position and would backfill the case for it. The political decision could have gone a different direction, as it has with most authorities, and that might happen next time after a regime change at PHE. Government reports of this kind are not written to “follow the evidence” but to provide science theater after deciding upon the general message (which indeed might have been based on already analyzing the evidence, but usually not). Embracing and exalting them for “following the evidence” (which, of course, really means “reaching the conclusion I already believed”) is rather naive. But more important and relevant to the present point, it contains the implicit message “when a government agency states a policy position and writes a report, everyone should defer to them.”]
Ultimately, most vapers and other consumers want liberty. An authority, be it agency, organization, or individual, that backs your particular choice for the moment is a dangerous ally. Once process decisions give them power, it is almost impossible to return to a state of real liberty. In a perfect world, the liberty of LBGT people to live their lives as they wish would not be granted by the authorities, but would just be. But because governments have asserted authority over their rights, usually in opposition to liberty though recently in support of it, those rights will always be subject to the whims of government (including the executive orders of President Cruz). Of course governments can seize new authority over most anything, but there is at least a firewall if it does not already exist or it is not widely accepted as legitimate.
THR advocates are generally libertarian in their views. Indeed, I do not see how anyone can genuinely support the real principles of harm reduction without being libertarian regarding consumer choice. This libertarian view of intimate individual decisions is shared with most modern humans who do not cling to some medieval institution’s rules of conduct. Even when support is not emphatic, a grudging “so long as they are not hurting anyone else, I guess it is their own decision to make” usually emerges when they take a moment to engage in a bit of caring human thinking. Public health people, along with members of particular religious sects, are an extreme special interest in their anti-libertarian views about people’s intimate choices. There is no reason to concede that we have to accept such views.
The perennial discussion about why “official” libertarians do not win elections made its inevitable resurgence during this election cycle. The answer to the question seems rather simple to me: Even though most Americans really believe in liberty, they have very different beliefs about what level of force is needed to provide liberty. Sensible people agree that some government force is need to preserve liberty — to defend the society against invading barbarians and internal violence, to enforce contracts, and a few other basic functions. The book whose title I riffed on here basically argues that these are all government should do (to perhaps oversimplify it just a touch), but others disagree.
Liberty-versus-liberty conflicts are usually presented only in terms of simple “…where my nose begins…” principles, but the issues are rather more complicated. To take the most obvious of many such conflicts, most people who organize under the banner “libertarian” believe in creating rules of finance and commerce (for they are created rules, decided upon by society — they don’t just happen) that give corporations great freedom and allow oligarchs to accumulate unlimited wealth and power by any means. But many others who self-identify as libertarian believe that meaningful liberty only exists when everyone has adequate means and opportunity, and that those will not exist in the feudal society that will result from the banner libertarians’ proposed rules. Thus, there can be no coalescing of a libertarian voting block because, roughly speaking, a third of all libertarians believe that more financial regulation and high taxes on the rich are anathema to liberty, while a third believe that they are necessary for liberty.
I presented that digression both because it ties closely to two other posts I hope to complete before this blog’s final curtain, and also because it emphasizes the process question I am discussing. In the examples of education or military policy, it is impossible to avoid a fight for policy control because government is inherently involved. Limits on corporations must be decided by government because corporations are a creation of government. But for THR and consumer choice more generally, the first decision lies elsewhere: Whether to concede that the authorities should be allowed to make rules (i.e., use force) or even aggressively persuade. Believers in liberty do not all agree about tax policy, but they do tend to agree that we should not be quick to concede personal liberty when we do not have to.
Of course it is true that governments and tobacco control organizations, as well as the activists in academic public health who are basically part of those operations, have self-appointed themselves as players in the space and will seize whatever power they can. But consumers and their advocates, as well as industry, can choose whether to welcome them as liberators or consider them to be an occupying army. Embracing their pronouncements increases their influence, and thus the chances that the process will ultimately be that whoever controls the power at the moment gets to tell us what we can consume (and keep in mind that tobacco control and other “public health” rules, once enacted, are almost never rolled back).
Of course, we can imagine an authoritarian regime in the space that creates better outcomes, such as better battery regulation. But how confident are we that the authorities will act that way, let alone stay that way? (And, to not lose other points from the above list, is it worth the cost of embracing a foul enterprise and alienating potential allies?) There are far more ways that authority can do harm in this space than there are opportunities to do good. Notice that no government authority has ever proposed proper consumer product regulation for e-cigarettes, rules designed to make the products better for the consumer. Instead, they have consistently imposed rules designed (yes, designed) to hurt consumers.
I am obviously not suggesting that a decision to consider the authorities an occupying army could stop them from being an occupying army. Nor, obviously, does any of this suggest that the details of the regime they impose do not matter; thus it is worth fighting for mindspace within the authoritarian faction. But denying the legitimacy of authority while dealing with the reality of the moment, even if the authority happens to be doing something positive at the moment, is the best way to preserve the hope that liberty can ultimately carry the day. It is probably the only way to be in a strong position to deny the legitimacy of that authority when — not if — it is later used to cause harm.