Bill Buckley Finds Joe's Tavern Close to Auschwitz


In recent years Bill Buckley, who has described himself as "a libertarian journalist" and whose magazine (where I used to work) has often run articles criticizing coercive policies aimed at discouraging smoking, has become increasingly sympathetic to the anti-smoking movement. Now he has gone off the deep end on this subject, calling in a recent column for tobacco prohibition and likening people who do not support government-imposed smoking bans to the manufacturers of Zyklon B (emphasis added):

Stick me in a confessional and ask the question: Sir, if you had the authority, would you forbid smoking in America? You'd get a solemn and contrite, Yes. Solemn because I would be violating my secular commitment to the free marketplace. Contrite, because my relative indifference to tobacco poison for so many years puts me in something of the position of the Zyklon B defendants after World War II. These folk manufactured the special gas used in the death camps to genocidal ends. They pleaded, of course, that as far as they were concerned, they were simply technicians, putting together chemicals needed in wartime for fumigation. Some got away with that defense; others, not.

Those who fail to protest the free passage of tobacco smoke in the air come close to the Zyklon defendants in pleading ignorance.

How close, exactly? I can think of a couple differences. The hydrogen cyanide gas generated by Zyklon B killed something like 100 percent of the prisoners exposed to it, while secondhand smoke, even when the exposure is intense and prolonged over decades, at worst slightly increases the risk of lung cancer and heart disease. (Lest I be located in the vicinity of Holocaust revisionists or Nazi apologists, I'll leave aside the questions about whether the associations between secondhand smoke and these diseases represent cause-and-effect relationships.) It also might be relevant to point out that, while Jews and gypsies and homosexuals did not volunteer for the Nazi death camps, people do voluntarily enter bars and restaurants where smoking is allowed. So maybe allowing people to set the rules for smoking on their own property is not really that close to aiding and abetting genocide.

Appalling analogies aside, Buckley is not only violating his "secular commitment to the free marketplace" by calling for a tobacco ban. He is ignoring all the points about the ineffectiveness and unintended side effects of drug prohibition that he and National Review have been making for years. Can it be that the war on drugs is a disaster only because the government picked the wrong drugs?

There's no need to speculate about the reasons for Buckley's newfound anti-tobacco faith. He himself ascribes it to his wife's recent death ("technically from an infection, but manifestly, at least in part, from a body weakened by 60 years of nonstop smoking") and his own emphysema, caused by "the idiocy of cigars inhaled." I've long admired Buckley's achievements, and he deserves our sympathy for his personal experiences with smoking-related disease. His emotionally colored arguments do not.

[Thanks to CK for the tip.]