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Smoking & Libertarianism: Amartya Sen's article and J C Lester's reply



Financial Times

Unrestrained smoking is a libertarian half-way house
By Amartya Sen

Published: February 12 2007 02:00 | Last updated: February 12 2007 02:00

Proposals, including those in Britain and France, for fairly draconian bans on smoking in public places have caused much anger and protest. This is as it should be, since the issue is controversial. But the contrary arguments demand critical scrutiny. One line of critique questions the use of statistical evidence for policymaking. Another invokes the importance of liberty to do what one likes in one's own life.

David Hockney, the distinguished artist, has argued that he has read "all their statistics" about the connection between smoking and disease, but he must observe that "fate plays part in life, that mysterious forces are at work on life": "Medical statisticians cannot grasp this, but almost everyone else does." What, then, should we make of such foundational doubts about the relevance of statistical reasoning?

This is, in fact, nostalgic territory for me personally. As a young student at Cambridge in the 1950s, I listened with rapt attention to Professor R. A. Fisher, perhaps the leading statistical theorist of his time, questioning the use by Richard Doll, the renowned medical scientist, of statistical evidence linking smoking with cancer. I was fascinated by the debate for many different reasons, not the least of which was the thoroughly personal one that I did smoke for four years from the age of 14 (it seemed to me, then, to be a very reasonable gesture of defiance) but ended
up with cancer of the mouth when I was just 18 (I was lucky enough to get by with massive radiational treatment in Calcutta, though not without some long-lasting penalties).

Of course, my own experience may well have been a fluke and certainly just one case would prove nothing. But I do not see how we can rely on invoking "mysterious forces" and ignore arguments based on assessments of likelihood (Fisher, in fact, offered a different explanation of the observed connection, which proved unsustainable). 

As far as public policy goes, group statistics can still be used to predict group results with some degree of certainty. It has been estimated by public health experts such as Professor Prabhat Jha and his colleagues that more than 5m premature deaths per year are currently connected with the use of tobacco. Unless smoking trends change, there would be about 150m tobacco-related deaths in the first quarter of this century, which would rise to 300m in the second quarter. 

A seemingly more plausible argument, based on the value of freedom, has been presented against smoking bans by Martin Wolf on these pages ("The absurdities of a ban on smoking," June 23, 2006). People have the right to do what they like with their own lives. While there is possible harm from breathing in smoke from others ("passive smoking"), that is not in itself decisive. Mr Wolf argued that while "harm to others is a necessary justification" for interfering with liberty, "it is not sufficient". "Intervention should also be," he went on to argue, "both effective and carry costs proportionate to likely gains."

I agree with Mr Wolf that freedom is centrally important. But how should we see the demands of freedom when habit-forming behaviour today restricts the freedom of the same person in the future? Once acquired, the habit of smoking is hard to kick, and it can be asked, with some plausibility, whether youthful smokers have an unqualified right to place their future selves in such bondage.

A similar issue was addressed by the leading apostle of liberty, John Stuart Mill, when he argued against a person's freedom to sell himself or herself in slavery. Mill concluded his discussion of this issue, in On Liberty, by noting: "The principle of freedom cannot require that the person be free not to be free", and that "it is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom". Mill's principle may demand more discussion but it is important that the practical case for tobacco control is not dismissed on the basis of an incomplete libertarian argument.

Another question to ask is: who exactly are the "others" who are affected? Passive smokers are not the only people who might be harmed. If smokers are made ill by their decision to go on smoking, then the society can either take the view that these victims of self-choice have no claim to public resources (such as the National Health Service or social safety nets), or more leniently (and I believe more reasonably) it could accept that these people still qualify to get social help. If the former, we would live in a monstrously unforgiving society; and happily I do not see Britain or France going that way. If the latter, then the interests of "others" would surely be affected through the sharing of the costs of public services.

Libertarian logic for non-interference, when consistently explored, can have extraordinarily stern implications in invalidating the right to assistance from the society when one is hit by self-harming behaviour. If that annulment is not accepted,
then the case for libertarian "immunity" from interference is also correspondingly undermined.

We should not readily agree to be held captive in a half-way house erected by an inadequate assessment of the demands of liberty.


The writer, who received the 1998 Nobel Prize for economics, is Lamont university professor at Harvard University and former master of Trinity College, Cambridge



Subject: LETTERS TO THE EDITOR: re "Unrestrained smoking is a libertarian half-way house", by Amartya Sen (February 12, 2007)

Dr J C Lester

February 14th 2007

Dear Sir,

re "Unrestrained smoking is a libertarian half-way house", by Amartya Sen (February 12, 2007). Liberty is not Professor Sen's forté. Some libertarian corrections: 

1. Any harm from "passive smoking" is self-inflicted when one is voluntarily on premises where smoking is allowed by the owner. Therefore, there is no libertarian case at all for restricting it. 

2. Harm to others is not a "necessary justification" for interfering with liberty. We may harm others with their consent (such as in a boxing match). 

3. No "habit-forming behaviour" ever "restricts the freedom of the same person in the future." Firstly, this has nothing to do with having our freedom (or liberty) restricted by the interference of others, which is what libertarianism is about. Second, there is nothing to stop us from choosing to put up with any temporary withdrawal symptoms. 

4. John Stuart Mill was simply mistaken to write of someone's selling himself into slavery that, "it is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom". If someone chooses to alienate any of his freedom by contract, or even completely by suicide, then clearly that is his decision and it would be an invasion of his liberty to stop him. (Though comparing acquiring the habit of smoking with a slave contract is absurd.) 

5. There is no such moral agent or organisation as "society" that can judge smokers. Professor Sen can only mean agents of the state. And the NHS is not a "public resource", it is a state resource. These are euphemisms for unlibertarian collectivism. 

6. The revenue from tobacco taxation is many times the amount that the NHS allegedly spends on smoking-related health problems. So it is the non-smokers who are being subsidised at the coerced expense of the smokers.

The "half-way house erected by an inadequate assessment of the demands of liberty" would, if completed, give smokers much more liberty than now, and certainly more than Professor Sen would like. However, if private health insurance replaced the disastrous universal "free at the point of consumption" NHS, then we might expect smokers to think twice when they see the immediate and ongoing financial costs to themselves of their behaviour. 

Yours sincerely,

J C Lester



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