Adam Sullivan’s July 6 column “Smoking law aging poorly” on Iowa’s smoking law is consoling for those who have had substantial exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke, citing research showing that this is less harmful than previously thought. But his argument also exposes the limits of libertarian thought.
The Koch brothers brand of libertarianism holds that if one’s freely chosen behavior cannot be shown to harm others, then regulating it is wrong. If secondhand smoke doesn’t cause cancer, then people should be able to smoke freely, as they are harming only themselves.
But what constitutes harm to others? Causing cancer may count, unless — in multiple cases for the Koch brothers — remedies cut too deeply into corporate profits. Sullivan ignores all the other costs of free smoking.
I attended university at a time when students and faculty could smoke in all classrooms, so I spent two to four hours each weekday in densely smoke-filled rooms. My laundry reeked. My eyes were sore. Each morning I coughed and spat my lungs clear. I don’t know what people with breathing problems did.
I agree that we should temper our temptations to use government to engineer individual behavior, but I would argue that we need to consider much more than life-threatening harm to others when deciding how to balance individual liberty and the common good.