One of the least-understood functions of private property rights is that of determining who may harm whom in what ways. In a free society, it is presumed that the air in a person’s house, restaurant, hotel, car or place of business is his property. That means that if you own a restaurant and don’t want your air polluted by tobacco smoke, it is your right. Most would deem it tyranny if a bunch of smokers had the political power to get the city council to pass an ordinance forcing you to permit smoking. You’d probably deem it more respectful of liberty if those who wanted to smoke sought a restaurant owner who permitted smoking. The identical argument can be made about a restaurant owner who permits smoking in a city where nonsmokers have the political power. The issue is not whether smoking harms others. The issue is the rights associated with property ownership.
The emerging tragedy is our increased willingness to use the coercive powers of government, in the name of health or some other ruse, to forcibly impose our preferences upon others. In the whole scheme of things, the tobacco issue itself is trivial. Far more important is its template for massive government disrespect for private property.
John Adams said, “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.”
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