Bernie’s Odd Contradiction on Smoking and The Importance of Principle

The presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders has been a deeply frustrating spectacle. While he doesn’t offer much to like from a libertarian perspective, his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, is the most adamantly militarist candidate in the race. Thus, among the Democrats, Bernie is the preferable candidate by default.

That’s why I wish he’d make it easier to support him. Just about every time he comes out and says something good, there’s a little something in his record or his outright remarks that is there to spoil it. It’s kind of a story of two steps forward, (at least) one step back. Here are some choice examples:

Now, it appears we add another example to the list, smoking. Allow me to explain.
Recently, and don’t ask me why, the issue of soda taxes has come up in the Democratic Primary. Bernie Sanders took the correct position on this issue, opposing the imposition of soda taxes, while Hillary Clinton supports them. To his credit, Bernie’s reason for opposing the soda tax was also logical and appropriate–namely, that soda taxes are disproportionately paid by low-income people because they tend to drink soda more. Thus, the taxes are regressive by design (where poor people pay a greater share of their income toward the tax than rich people do), and it’s consistent with Bernie’s focus on income inequality to oppose it on this basis.
The problem came a couple days later in an interview with Meet the Press. Bernie was asked again about the soda taxes, and basically restated the position above. Then, the host asked if he felt the same argument should apply to cigarette taxes. After all, cigarettes are also consumed primarily by lower-income people, and are thus also regressive. Bernie’s response to this line of questioning was about as bad as possible:

CHUCK TODD:
So you must be against cigarette taxes, too, then? 

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS:
No, I’m not. Cigarette taxes are– there’s a difference between cigarettes and soda. I am aware of the obesity problem in this country. 

CHUCK TODD:
I don’t think Michael Bloomberg would agree with you on that one? 

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS:
Well, that’s fine. He can have his point of view. But cigarettes are causing cancer, obviously, and a dozen other diseases. And there is almost the question as to why it remains a legal product in this country.

See what happened there? The difference between soda and cigarettes is one of degree, at least in the context above. No one would dispute that soda and cigarettes are both harmful to our health. It can be argued that cigarettes are more harmful on a per use basis. But the essence of the question is the same. Both taxes primarily hurt poor people, and both taxes would be applied to a voluntary action–thereby assuming that the government should be in the business of helping tell poor people how to live a better life. It’s not often appreciated in this context, but we should recognize that there’s something deeply creepy about that. This is typically most obvious when one learns about preposterous antiquated laws against certain sexual behaviors (like sodomy) that were deemed deviant at the time, or, to use a more modern example, laws against marijuana use that grow more unpopular by the day. What all these laws have in common is that the government is trying to get involved in people’s personal lives and influence their personal behavior, either to prevent them from harming themselves or being morally corrupted. They don’t work, and they shouldn’t be tried in the first place.
But speaking of pot, there’s actually something even more alarming about what Bernie said above. Really, he wasn’t just taking a hypocritical position on cigarette taxes. On the contrary, he was, at least implicitly, taking it a step further and suggesting that cigarettes should possibly be totally illegal. Over at Reason, the irony certainly was not lost on them. The same Presidential candidate that has openly called for marijuana to be legalized was hinting at banning the use of a different smokeable plant–namely, tobacco.
Of course, to be fair to Bernie, I don’t anticipate him rolling this out as a platform plank any time soon. But the fact that this is how he thinks is bad enough. It doesn’t make sense. And it highlights one fundamental problem with Bernie’s campaign–when it comes to key issues, many of Bernie’s ideas aren’t grounded in principle. Instead, he seems to be taking them on a case-by-case basis, so we shouldn’t be surprised that he can get something like this wrong.
To see this, it’s worth trying to come up with a consistent rule that could justify all three positions: Don’t tax soda, do tax cigarettes (or ban them), and legalize marijuana. Here’s a few leading contenders we can rule out.
  • Everything giant corporations are involved in is evil.
    • This one seemed promising at first given Bernie’s sensibilities, but it breaks down on soda taxes. Pepsi and Coca-Cola are giant corporations as surely Phillip-Morris is so this one isn’t going to work.
  • Taxing or banning habits common to poor people is wrong.
    • Unfortunately, cigarette taxes / prohibition would break the rule here.
  • People should be allowed to make their own choices about health without government interference.
    • Again, cigarettes break the mold.
The effective rationale Bernie must deploy to square these ideas is that we shouldn’t tax poor people and people should generally get to make their own decisions, but if the habit is potentially deadly, then government can try to stop it. Of course, this is essentially the same thing as taking a case-by-case approach. Who decides what the threshold is for when something is so deadly that it needs to be prohibited or taxed? What are the standards? And do we even know that cigarette smoking is actually worse for your health than marijuana? I’d guess that it probably is. On the other hand, marijuana is thought to impair your driving abilities while cigarette smoking does not. How does that factor into the calculation? And can someone please get me some kind of decision matrix so I can figure out what position to take here?
See how complicated that gets? Frankly, I feel bad for Bernie. If that’s what I was working from and I was put on the spot, I don’t think I’d do much better than he did. But if you have real, sound principles, it’s easy to know the correct, and intellectually consistent position. And naturally, as a libertarian, I’d recommend the nonaggression principle. Let’s try it out.
The nonaggression principle holds that people should basically be allowed to do as they like, provided they do not harm other people or violate their property rights. The popular shorthand is “Don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff.” Using the nonaggression principle, here’s how libertarians would respond to a few of the questions we’ve been discussing: 
  • Should the government place a tax on soda?
    • Are you serious? Absolutely not.  A person’s decision to drink soda does not harm anyone besides the consumer. They should be free to do what they want, and the government shouldn’t be involved.
  • Should the government ban smoking cigarettes?
    • No. Again, a person’s decision to smoke cigarettes primarily affects only them. Thus, they should be free to do what they want and government shouldn’t target them. Having said that, there is a chance that secondhand smoke can affect other people, which brings us to…
  • Should the government ban smoking (cigarettes or otherwise) in establishments open to the public (restaurants, bars, etc.) in order to prevent harm caused by secondhand smoke?
    • No. Individual property owners should be allowed to decide whether or not they allow smoking in their establishments; the government should not make a one-size-fits-all decision in either direction. In publicly owned places, like parks or government buildings, however, the issue gets more complicated. Ideally, libertarians would suggest limiting the amount of publicly owned property to minimize the dispute.
  • Should the government legalize marijuana?
    • Yes. Again, private people should be allowed to make choices for themselves and the consequences of marijuana consumption fall on the consumer (aside from the secondhand smoke issues, which we addressed above.)
There are no contradictions, and it’s not hard to figure out. And note that I support the positions above in spite of the fact that, personally, I cannot stand cigarette smoke. Seriously, it’s a little ridiculous how much I dislike it. If I’m in a group of people where just one person happens to be smoking, even if it’s outside, I have to leave. I just physically don’t tolerate it, and I get choked up whenever I’m near it. And to the extent that smoking is occasionally a social phenomenon, it makes me act more than a little awkward. Fortunately, my personal preferences are not relevant here. I would hate to see my favorite restaurants reintroduce smoking if Portland’s current ban was lifted, but even so, I would absolutely vote in favor of lifting the ban to let private property owners decide.
If you have principles, then arbitrary preferences cease to matter. It’s easy to determine the right positions, and you never have to worry about being a hypocrite, either on foreign policy or domestic policy. And while it’s true that the nonaggression principle isn’t sufficient to determine your position on every issue, it’s a pretty good starting point. At least on questions of personal liberties, Bernie would do well to try it out.

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