Monday, August 3, 2009

On smoking, Marxism, libertarianism and anarchy

I'll admit that I find it difficult to empathize with smokers that complain about government policies intended to stop smoking. The way I see it, cigarettes are toxic, end of discussion. The talk about "smokers' freedom" strikes me as far less compelling than my freedom not to breathe nasty, cancer-causing smoke. If you want to do it in your house, very well. But we don't allow people to smoke, say, arsenic in public here in California, for largely the same reasons as tobacco.

So, I find the "righteous rant" that Sullivan recently posted from a reader on the subject less compelling than just silly. An excerpt:

I no longer enjoy living in and I no longer want to live in these United States.

I'd actually prefer to live in Red fucking China where you can at least buy a decent smoke instead of a cigarette that, well, doesn't smoke (you can't even call cigarettes "smokes" anymore) and that tastes like some mad cruel totalitarian alchemist's vile compound.

The killjoys have done their right-alienating job very well indeed: now they've reached their killjoy-fouled hands into people's formerly free mouths.
I recall Ross Douthat lamenting that merely invoking "freedom" is enough to win a public policy argument in the USA, regardless of the merits. This is true. But the very idea of civilization involves giving up a substantial amount of freedom in exchange for stability. For example, giving up the freedom to kill whoever you want is something that is usually a non-negotiable part of civilization. And, considering the effects of secondhand smoke, I don't think this is an overstatement at all. It is a peculiarly American sentiment to think that you can have both near-complete freedom as well as a stable society. There are obviously different tradeoffs you can make, but even in a "free" environment like the Wild West there were a rather rigid set of rules that evolved over time governing peoples' behavior (Deadwood had a particularly vivid telling of this process). It's just Plato's Republic proving itself to be right again and again. Creating a society that was not only unbound from law but also from social rules that function analogously would be a truly radical experiment, but this is an old objective associated with a rather infamous group. Indeed, some strains of libertarianism are essentially just anarchy repackaged anew, with the same sort of pessimism-optimism combination that never really managed to work--a sort of individuality fixation coupled with an extreme mistrust of social institutions. It's not unlike academic Marxism in its setup or objective, really. Neither of these systems is workable because they assign too little importance to individual self-interest, but they have managed to inspire plenty of idealists over the decades. (Caveat: My impression is that most libertarians make some sort of allowance for a central state and aren't actually anarchist, like Will Wilkinson, for example. Obviously, this applies less to them.)

I really do understand the sentiment behind the Kinks' "20th Century Man", which is essentially a conservative song bemoaning the loss of freedom in absolute terms over the past few centuries. But by and large this was done not just because a bunch of Puritans wanted to stop people from having fun (though I'll admit that that's always been a factor, and it should be minimized, of course), but rather to improve social outcomes, and when you look at life expectancy now compared to, say, a few hundred years ago, I think that the outcomes are generally better. Myself, I wouldn't want to live at any period in history earlier than the 1920s. We might have had a "freer" society back then, but it was one that was disease-ridden, poorer, less-educated, etc.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.