Today, the Commons will vote on whether to disagree with the Lords in their amendment to ban smoking in private vehicles in the presence of children.
Anyone who can read knows that smoking kills. And I know, for it killed my stepfather and an uncle. Why anyone does it despite the clear warnings and often lurid images on the packets is a mystery not explained by appeal to the addictive qualities of nicotine.
People who wish to live long and healthy lives ought to choose not to smoke. They certainly ought not to smoke in cars or other indoor spaces with children.
Unfortunately, free people make bad choices. The earliest documentation which comes to mind of this fundamental problem with humanity is Moses’ renewal of the Covenant with Israel in Deuteronomy 29-30. For example:
This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.
And of course the people failed to abstain from murder and theft and all the other curses that afflict life in society that they and their children might live. Regulation was ultimately “weak and useless”: it turned out a better hope was required.
This then is the problem: not smoking in confined spaces with children is such an obviously good idea that no one should do it but we can rely on people to make the bad choice irrespective of whether or not we pass this law.
So which path to go down? Demand liberty and personal responsibility, sure in the knowledge that freedom “will, on balance, release more forces for the good than for the bad.” Or forever extend legislation and regulation to cover every potentially harmful choice, apply ever greater resources to enforcement and apply ever-greater punishments to exact compliance?
Much has been written about this choice but I am moved to refer to What Type of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear, a chapter in Democracy in America (1835) by Alexis de Tocqueville. The chapter is well worth reading in full: the kind of despotism democratic nations have to fear is just that into which we continue to slide. Tocqueville wrote:
After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
I will vote against the proposed ban on smoking in private vehicles in the presence of children but not because I think it is a liberty worth preserving. It is not and I should be happy if no one ever smoked again, whether or not in a car and whether or not with children.
I will disagree with the Lords and vote against the ban because I wish to live in a country of free and responsible flourishing adults who are more than the “flock of timid and industrious animals” which Tocqueville foresaw. I will respect the dignity of adults to exercise their own free will and to take responsibility for the health of their own children.
Smoking kills. Don’t do it in front of the children. Preferably don’t do it at all. But abstain because you choose life for you and your children and not because I say so.