My objection to the smoking ban ultimately arises from seeing it as a gross restriction of freedom. People should be able to meet up and have a few beers and smoke a few cigarettes and talk about this and that. If you can’t do that, you can’t do anything. On the day the smoking ban came into force, a complete stranger came up to me and said, “It’s not a free country any more”. And he was right.
One of the surprises that came in the wake of the smoking ban was for me to discover that most of the people I knew, and whom I’d known for over 30 years in some cases, really weren’t in the least bit bothered about this monstrous restriction on freedom. Mostly it was because many were non-smokers, and the law didn’t directly affect them. Many of them had also fully absorbed all the antismoking doctrines – that smoking caused lung cancer, that secondhand smoke posed a health threat, etc, etc -. And most of them weren’t in the least bit bothered that smokers had been driven out of the pubs they’d inhabited for centuries.
But more than that, I was surprised that the government cared so little about freedom. And that all the political parties cared nothing about freedom, including the Liberal party whose very name contained the idea of freedom (‘libertas’). Somehow or other, something called ‘health’ had become more important than freedom.
But above all, I was astonished at how much I had suddenly started caring about freedom. I’d not been much bothered about it before. But then, up until 1 July 2007, Britain had been a free country, more or less. It’s maybe only when you’ve lost something that you realise how valuable it was. Up until that point, you take it for granted.
Freedom doesn’t seem to matter at all to the authoritarian antismokers. In fact, they don’t seem to know what it is at all. And when they write about it, they very often put it double quotes, as “freedom”. Like it’s “God” or something really totally abstruse, to have a quiet titter about. Tee hee.
If we are to take the new primacy of ‘health’ seriously (and I suppose we must, given that it – along with its wife, ‘safety’ – underpins more and more legislation) we must learn that what matters most is how long you live. Because the aim of ‘health and safety’ laws is to help people live long lives. And the trouble with smoking is that it shortens people’s lives. As also does alcohol. And over-eating. And more or less anything else you care to mention.
In the healthist credo, the sole purpose of human life is to live as long as possible. Nothing else matters. Particularly not this “freedom” thing, whatever it is. In fact, “freedom” poses a grave threat to longevity. Free people, choosing to do whatever they like, are liable to make the wrong choices. And drive too fast. And eat too much. And put their lives in danger by going drinking/swimming/climbing/dancing/motor racing/yachting. All of which are ‘health threats’.
It’s a grim and dwindled creed, this healthist doctrine. It has an attenuated idea of success in life – which is the number of years you managed to live. Want to know, when you’re leafing through the obituaries columns, whether someone lived a successful life or not? Simple. Just count the years in their life. Never mind whether they won a Nobel prize, or were the King of Denmark, or made a few million dollars, or scored 374 runs at the Oval. That doesn’t matter. All that matters is how long they lived. The number. And, rather like Olympic records, the record is always being broken.
It’s quite simple. If someone dies before the age of 50, then their life was a failure. You have to make it to 70 at least before you begin to get up even into the bronze medal category. Make 80, and you’re a silver medalist. The gold medals are reserved for the centenarians. They get a congratulatory email from the Queen.
In a few decades time, you’ll be a total failure if you don’t live past 100. You’ll only get the Queen’s congratulations if you make it to 200. Or maybe 300. You’ll be lying in a vast bed of cotton wool, warmed and cooled by air conditioning systems, and drip-fed exactly the right mix of organically-grown mung beans, when the Queen’s message is relayed to you (in stages, so that the shock doesn’t kill you). You will never do anything, because doing anything poses a health risk. Even solving a crossword puzzle carries health risks, after all, as your blood pressure and internal body temperature rises when you can’t think of the letter that represents the Gravitational Constant.*
Why did ‘health’ (which is equal to longevity) come to be the measure of everything? Simple. Because it can be measured. It’s possible to work out how long somebody has lived by subtracting the date of their birth from the date of their death. How “free” they were, or how “happy” they were, or how “honourable” they were cannot be measured. And that’s why they don’t count. Because counting is everything these days. Because number is everything. If you can’t give it a number, it doesn’t exist. And that’s why “freedom” doesn’t exist. Or “happiness”. Or “honour”. Or “God”. They have no numbers. They can’t be measured. So they don’t exist. Obviously.
Ours is now a world in which everything is measured with meters of some sort or other. It’s measured with rulers or tape measures to find the length of it. And with scales to find the weight of it. And clocks to measure the duration of it. And voltmeters to measure the voltage of it. We don’t have any ‘happiness meters’, or ‘freedom meters’, or ‘god meters’. So, sorry, but these things simply can’t be measured, and so don’t exist. Or will not exist until somebody provides the requisite meters to measure them. Complete with nice dials and pointers with numbers round the edge. Which nobody has done so far.
But, hey, we can measure how long somebody lives. In fact, that’s pretty much all we can measure about them. And because that’s the only thing we can measure, that is all that really matters.
* The letter used for the Gravitational Constant is G. No, don’t thank me. No sweat. Just didn’t want you to die prematurely (i.e. before the age of 250), that’s all.