Leaving Eagle City Hall last week, I heard something that made me just a little depressed. The City Council had just finished taking testimony on a proposed ordinance to ban smoking virtually everywhere except private residences.
The council voted to give the public more time to comment on the proposal, because only one Eagle resident showed up to testify. Everyone else came from other parts of the Valley.
The decision to postpone a decision isn't what depressed me. It was a comment made to me by a longtime area businessman. As we were leaving, he told me that he's just about given up fighting for private property rights, including his own. Now, he's merely trying to make sure that the ordinances and laws that are passed allow him to stay in business, even under new restrictions and mandates.
The Eagle smoking ordinance is a restriction on private property. I think everyone would agree that is true. It would prohibit smoking in bars and allow only 20 percent of a hotel's rooms to go to smokers. (What public policy is served by telling hoteliers in Eagle that they can only rent out 20 percent of their rooms to smokers? And why 20 percent, of all numbers?)
In its current form, the Eagle ordinance could also prohibit smoking in an office where the owner has just one employee, even if that business rarely or never sees outside customers. In other words, you can work hard your whole life, buy office space in Eagle, and then be told you're not allowed to enjoy a legal activity (smoking) on your property if that's your choice.
Supporters of this smoking ban contend the restriction will save lives by protecting the people who, for example, want to enjoy a night on the town in a smoke-free bar. And they argue that the ban will also protect the workers in those bars who have to put up with fumes whether they want to or not.
Really, though, neither is true. Many, if not most, bars in the Treasure Valley have already banned or restricted smoking in some fashion. Even supporters of the smoking ban were able to provide a long list of bars they enjoy frequenting because of their smokeless environs. That means, for the customers, there are no public health concerns unless they choose to patronize an establishment that allows smoking. Workers also have a choice: They can choose to work in a smoky bar or they can choose to work elsewhere.
The same free-market reality existed five years ago when the state government came along and decided to ban smoking in restaurants. Many restaurants in Idaho had already done so voluntarily. The remainder had made a business decision - one they were afforded as owners of private property until the Legislature voted to take that right away. And in 2006, bowlers came to the Legislature and asked to be saved from the misery of bowling where there's smoke. Bowlers, too, had a choice. No one ever died from not bowling. So the answer was obvious. Stay home. Go elsewhere. Your favorite bowling alley would then have to either make a change or go out of business. Instead the bowlers decided they needed to pass a law so that government could take a property right away from another.
This might appear to be all about smoking. It's not. It's about how easily we're willing to turn to government to give up our private property rights or usurp those of our neighbors even when it's not absolutely necessary. And if we're willing to surrender our rights in the face of a smoking ban, what next?
In the interest of public health, shall we ban smoking in our cars? In our homes? This isn't fantasy.
These very concepts are being discussed in legislatures and town councils across the country. And in many cases, the argument in support of new and bolder laws starts like this: "We already ban smoking in restaurants in the interest of public health. Why not take it to the next level?" Why indeed.
James Madison wrote, "Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions."
During my testimony last week, an Eagle councilman asked me how I would feel if my daughter, working her way through college, had to take a job in a smoky bar because no other options existed. My answer is this: She's a free person living in a free country, and freedom and liberty are more important - and hopefully longer lasting - than any one job.
Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank. E-mail him at [email protected].