For the past week or so, in one sunny pub garden or another, I’ve been reading Smoking, Class and the Legitimation of Power, by Sean Gabb, who is the Director of the Libertarian Alliance, and who isn’t a smoker.
And the book isn’t about class and the legitimation of power. That’s just what its Introduction is about. The rest of the book, which consists of several different essays mostly written 20 years earlier, is about smokers’ rights.
In some ways it’s really two books. One written circa 1988 for publication by Forest, and the other an introduction written circa 2005. For what springs out of this book is that the author has radically changed his mind in the intervening period. Circa 1990 he is writing in an essay on The Right to Smoke: a Conservative View:
For myself, I stand by the right to enjoy smoking. I am fiercely and unalterably opposed to any measures which will, for the sake of a smoker’s own supposed benefit, tend to infringe that right. But then I am a Conservative. I belong to the Party of Freedom. (p. 121)
But by 2005, in the Introduction, he has become disillusioned:
I then believed that the agenda of the Thatcher Government was to liberate the British people, but that this agenda had been corrupted in various ways. I now believe the agenda was one of replacing a social democratic order that had turned out not to serve ruling class interests with another one that did… When I wrote my Conservative defence, I thought of Margaret Thatcher as a kind of Julian the Apostate. Despite her miserable ejection from office, I can see her now as a kind of Diocletian. She brought stability to what had been crumbling. She did not make government better – only more efficient. What I took at the time to be blemishes on the agenda I now realise were the agenda. (Introduction xvi)
The disillusionment extends to the very nature of government:
In any society, the main function of government is to provide status and incomes for the ruling class. However recruited, the members of such a class will be motivated by a disinclination to earn their living by voluntary exchange, or by a delight in coercing others, or by a combination of the two. (Introduction vi)
So he appears to have changed from being a Thatcherite free market liberal into something more akin to a Marxist class warrior.
Therefore the war against tobacco. Its function is to provide a set of plausible excuses for the extraction of resources from the people and for the exercise of power over them. (Introduction xi)
Is this so? The only way in which “resources” can be “extracted” from smokers would seem to be through the taxation of tobacco. In this respect, the associated war on smoking would seem counter-productive, because the less tobacco that is consumed, and the fewer people who continue to smoke, the less tax revenue there will be from tobacco. Furthermore, as smokers are driven from pubs and cafes and restaurants by smoking bans, the less money they will spend on food and drink in such places, and the less tax revenue the government can extract from these various hospitality businesses. And lastly total victory in that war – with smoking made illegal – would see tax revenues from tobacco completely collapse.
So while predatory government provides an explanation for the punitive taxation of tobacco, it doesn’t seem to offer a good explanation for the war on tobacco – except as a justification of the level of taxation. Why kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? Surely a predatory government that really wished to extract the maximum tax revenue from smokers would actively encourage smoking? For the more people smoke, the greater the tax revenue. Indeed a rapacious government might even encourage children to take up smoking. Government taxation of tobacco is entirely at odds with the governmental war on tobacco, and indicates a degree of schizophrenia, perhaps with one government department (the treasury) at war with another (dept of health).
But all that aside, the essays from the late 1980s were thought-provoking. The Right to Smoke: A Christian View was an essay of a kind I have quite simply never read before: a theological defence of smoking. Who writes things like that these days?
Equally thought-provoking was Commercial Advertising: A Threatened Human Right. It was thought-provoking for me because, to be quite honest, I’ve never thought very much about advertising. And when I do think about it, I tend to think about the defamatory anti-advertising that is now required by law on tobacco products. What’s to stop cars bearing health warnings showing crushed and mangled children, and Driving Kills? Or books carrying health warnings about their contents? Where does it end?
But it was the very last few lines of the book with which I found myself in most complete agreement:
Hostile reviews of anti-smoking propaganda often conclude by accusing the body in question of wasting the tax-payers’ money, and calling for reforms to its management. I think this shows a lack of understanding. So far as our various rulers are concerned, the Tobacco-Free Initiative has not been a waste of money. Nor are all the other research projects and campaigns of other bodies. It is a central purpose of these bodies to lie to us about the dangers of smoking. Those who work for them are selected for their ability to conduct biased research and to dress up the resulting propaganda as scientific fact.
There is no point in demanding changes to the present health establishment. Expecting these people to start telling the truth is as naïve as expecting an estate agency to start offering driving lessons.
The only way to stop this flood of propaganda and lifestyle regulation is to shut all the relevant bodies down – to kick everyone employed by them unpensioned into the street, and to burn all the records. (The Passive Smoking Scare. p. 194)
Amen to that. Except I’d go further: I’d also prosecute them to the ends of the earth.