Here is paternalism in action against the lower orders:
Smoking would be prohibited in public housing homes nationwide under a proposed federal rule to be announced on Thursday, a move that would affect nearly one million households and open the latest front in the long-running campaign to curb unwanted exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke.
The ban, by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, would also require that common areas and administrative offices on public housing property be smoke-free….
Since the federal government began to press for smoking bans in public housing in 2009, more than 600 agencies encompassing over 200,000 households have voluntarily barred indoor smoking. In moving to require the prohibitions across the country, federal officials say they are acting to protect residents from secondhand smoke, which can travel through walls and under doors; to reduce the risk of fires; and to lower building maintenance costs.
As The New York Times reports, this is more like the last action of an ongoing government policy rather than the start of a new campaign against a substance that, while still technically legal, is arguably as vilified in popular culture and tax policy. Indeed, in every day life, I'd say there's little question that being a pot smoker is less likely to raise an eyebrow than being a tobacco user.
So what comes next, after tobacco smoke is banned in federally funded or supported housing? Despite posing virtually none of the personal health hazards of smoking, vaping is everywhere under attack because it mimics the act of smoking. Chewing tobacco doesn't present the same externalities (real and imagined) of secondhand smoke, but it poses health risks, which are likely to be paid for by taxpayers (if you're living in public housing, aren't you more likely to be receiving various sorts of other tax-funded support)?
The proposed rule would require housing agencies to prohibit lit cigarettes, cigars and pipes in all living units, indoor common areas, administrative offices and all outdoor areas within 25 feet of housing and administrative office buildings. The rule would not apply initially to electronic cigarettes, but federal officials are seeking input about whether to ban them.
Individual housing authorities can be as restrictive as they want, extending the prohibition to areas near playgrounds, for instance, or making their entire grounds smoke-free, officials said.
The Times quotes one resident who expresses frustration with the proposed ban:
"What I do in my apartment should be my problem, long as I pay my rent," said Gary Smith, 47, a cigarette in hand as he sat outside the door to a building in the Walt Whitman Houses in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn….
Mr. Smith, for one, expressed skepticism that a ban could be enforced. "You don't know what's going on in people's apartment," he said at the Walt Whitman Houses. He added, "What are they going to do, smell your apartment?"
As someone who grew up in a house with parents who were smokers, I fully appreciate the arguments—and these are independent of questions of the health effects of second-hand smoke—that being around smokers is a nuisance and unpleasant. To the extent that's real, there should be relatively easy ways to create parts of public housing that allow smoking and others that do not. For those of you who assume that the negative health effects of secondhand smoke are settled in any sort of serious way, please read my colleague Jacob Sullum's prodigious and award-winning output on the matter (start here).
But the idea that the state can or should condition the receipt of benefits on the avoidance of specific legal behaviors should be anathema not simply to libertarians but to conservatives who denounce social engineering and liberals who oppose treating lower-income Americans as incapable of making responsible life decisions. The smoking ban is best seen as akin to Gov. Scott Walker's "repellent, unconstitutional call to drug-test welfare recipients" (I might also add that Walker's plan is also cost-ineffective in any possible calculation).
The smoking ban is social engineering similar to giving tax breaks to people who have more kids (part of the tax plan being pushed by Marco Rubio and so-called reformocons) or mortgage-interest deductions that privilege homeowners over renters. It's also the thinking behind the creation of food stamps the restrict purchases to certain items deemed "healthy" or whatever (the reality is simply that SNAP benefits inflate food prices while creating a black market in which some recipients trade debit cards for cash at a percentage of the benefits' face value).
One of the great insights and insistences of classical liberals in the 19th was that common humanity should not only mean that all of us should be given more control over all aspects of our individual lives (for a great discussion of how this played in British discussions of movements to enfranchise blacks and Irish, see David M. Levy's How The Dismal Science Got Its Name).
In the contemporary moment, it would be far better and more effective to many if not most questions raised by the welfare state to simply make cash grants to recipients who qualiy for whatever program. And let's be clear too, that most transfer payments of all sorts should be reduced in size and scope. Certainly that's true of the mortgage-interest deduction, which is utilized only by relatively wealthy Americans. A 2008 study by the conservative Heritage Foundation found that 19 percent of government 'benefits and services" went to members of the top income quintile.
Paying cash to recipients of things such as federal housing support and food stamps would not only end or minimize many of the market-distorting effects of current policies. More important, it would also treat recipients as responsible people worthy of respect and equal standing under the law.
In 2011, Reason TV interviewed New Wave icon Joe Jackson on his love of music and his contempt for the nanny state and smoking bans.