Control freaks want to run your life. They call themselves "public servants." But whether student council president, environmental bureaucrat, or member of Congress, most believe they know how to run your life better than you do.
I admit I was once guilty of this kind of thinking. As a young consumer reporter, I researched what doctors said was bad for us and what products might harm us. Then I demanded that the state pass rules to protect us from those things. The concept of individual freedom was not yet on my radar screen. I apologize. I was ignorant and arrogant.
But at least I had no real power. I couldn't force consumers to avoid unhealthy things or pay for certain kinds of health care. I couldn't force any business to stop selling something. Only government can do that. Only government can use force.
Sadly, government is filled with people just as ignorant and arrogant as I was.
Economist Matthew Mitchell of the Mercatus Center likes to point out that governments impose regulations without acknowledging that the new rules will have unintended consequences.
Bans on smoking in restaurants and bars is one of the control freaks' favorite campaigns. "A recent Cornell University of Wisconsin study," Mitchell says on my show this week, "found that in those areas where they introduced bans on smoking, you saw an increase in accidents related to alcohol. The theory is that people drive longer distances in order to find bars that either have outside seating or are outside the jurisdiction."
I selfishly like smoking bans. I don't like breathing others' smoke. But the majority of us shouldn't force our preferences on the minority, even if they do things that are dangerous. Smokers ought to be allowed to smoke in some bars, if the bar owners allow it. But today in about half the states, no one may smoke in any bar.
It's totalitarianism from the health police. If secondhand smoke were dangerous enough to threaten non-smokers, the control freaks would have a point, but it isn't. It barely has any detectable health effect at all.
Rule-makers always want more. At first, they just asked for bans on TV's cigarette ads. Then they demanded no-smoking sections in restaurants. Then bans in airplanes, schools, workplaces, entire restaurants. Then bars, too. Now sometimes even apartments and outdoor spaces. Can't smokers have some places?
So far, smokers just … take it. But maybe that's changing. The town of Westminster, Massachusetts, recently held hearings on whether to ban the sale of tobacco products altogether, and 500 angry people showed up.
One said, "I find smoking one of the most disgusting habits anybody could possibly do. On top of that, I find this proposal to be even more of a disgusting thing." Good for him.
Mitchell warns that "we are accustomed to thinking about the federal government and federal overreach. But a lot of the most intrusive regulations happen at the local level," as in Westminster.
In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, police charged two pastors and a 90-year-old volunteer with giving food to poor people in public. Florida law declares it illegal to give away food in an outdoor location without providing public toilets. The restrictions were instated in the name of "public health and safety."
In New Jersey, churches were forced to stop offering Thanksgiving dinners to poor people because they didn't have "properly licensed commercial kitchens."
A court threw out a soft drink ban imposed on my city, New York, by then-mayor Bloomberg, but my new control-freak mayor, Bill de Blasio, plans to reinstate the ban.
The rules keep coming. Another New York regulation, banning trans fats in restaurants, led to stringent bans on which foods people were allowed to donate to the hungry. I'd think the poor have bigger problems than trans fats. Their biggest problem is the same one we all have: too much government.