There were a series of letters to the editor in the Evansville Courier Press about smoking and smoking bans. (Here is one.) It made me wonder what the proper libertarian position on smoking and smoking bans might be. Libertarianism generally speaking doesn’t favor restricting the behavior of others, but that’s true only so long as the behavior doesn’t infringe upon the rights of another. So, smoking in an air-tight room on one’s own property presents no problem.
But, the trouble with smoking is that the waste from the behavior is not contained; rather it is imposed on others. To one extent or another – the level is the subject of some disagreement, I suppose – the waste is a carcinogen that could cause health problems for bystanders. Less severe, but still a significant factor in the debate, is the imposition of a foul smell upon bystanders.
Part of the appeal of libertarianism is its elegant simplicity and bright lines. But, in this case I think there is some arbitrary line drawing to be done. Not every offensive smell should subject a person to the awesome power of the goverment. Anti-flatulence legislation, for example, would be going too far. On the other hand, a factory or confined feeding operations belching out fumes that essentially make one’s property unlivable is appropriate because the smell is depriving you of your legitimate enjoyment of your own property. Somewhere between the extremes is a line.
The same goes for subjecting one’s fellow citizen to air with unhealthy properties. Quarantining every person with a cold goes too far, even though they are breathing out air that will make others sick. On the other hand expelling clouds of mustard gas onto your neighbor’s property is prohibited behavior.
So, on which side of these lines does cigarette smoking fall on from the libertarian perspective, and is there a principled reason for its position on one side or the other of the line?