Smoking Bans: Private vs. Government Property

Recently a reporter contacted me regarding smoking bans. She did not use my comments in her story, so I’m pleased to make them available here:

I am opposed to smoking bans on private property in general, at every level of government.

When government restricts smoking on private property, including in restaurants and the like (even if “open to the public”), government violates people’s rights to control their property and associate freely with others. Restaurants and other establishments have a moral right to allow smoking in their establishments or to ban it—and their potential customers have a moral right to decide whether to seek to do business at any given establishment. If you don’t want the smoke, don’t go. There’s no such thing as a “right” to use another’s property against that person’s consent. That said, given historical trends of reduced smoking, absent a ban many establishments would have voluntarily banned smoking long ago. (I personally hate smoking and would go out of my way to find smoke-free establishments.)

To give you an indication of how smoking bans violate civil liberties, consider that some bans prevent people from smoking on stage, in the course of presenting a work of art, and hence violate rights of free speech and expression. Moreover, the First Amendment recognizes “the right of the people peaceably to assemble”—but smokers are often denied this right.

Smoking bans regarding government property are more complex. Government may legitimately ban smoking in government buildings and tight public spaces, such as court houses. Government has no good reason to ban smoking in open outdoor spaces controlled by the government, such as sidewalks. As to what government property ought to be converted to private property, that is a broader subject for another day.

Regarding campuses, the fundamental problem is that many campuses are government controlled. Private colleges—like all private establishments—have a moral right to allow, restrict, or ban smoking, at their discretion. Regarding government-controlled campuses, often there is no clear way to protect everyone’s rights—quite simply because government controlling a college campus inherently violates people’s rights, primarily by forcibly seizing people’s wealth. When government does control a college campus, the best the government in control can do is seek to draw up rules that balance different people’s interests while not horribly trampling the Bill of Rights. To my mind, colleges can reasonably ban smoking inside, but not outside. If a college wants the ability to ban smoking everywhere, it should first stop violating people’s rights, stop collecting people’s money seized by force, and become a private institution.

Image: Van Gogh, Wikimedia Commons

Scott McInnis on Eminent Domain

In the comments to my recent post about Dan Maes, “Mike” reminded me about a proposal to expand military lands around Piñon Canyon.

Lynn Bartels writes for the December 10 Denver Post, “Republicans opposed to the military’s Piñon Canyon expansion project are disappointed that property rights weren’t addressed when party leaders unveiled a new platform and rallied around gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis.”

Here is how the Post’s article summarizes the issue: “The Army wants to [expand] its 235,000-acre Piñon Canyon training maneuver area by almost 100,000 acres. The Army has promised to acquire the land only from a willing seller or through a long-term lease, but landowners in the impacted areas in southeastern Colorado fear their property will be seized, adversely-affected or the military will eventually want even more land.”

It is important, then, to distinguish between expansion of the military lands and the use of eminent domain. Property rights do not always protect the owner from being “adversely affected.” For instance, unless you live in an HOA that controls for such things, your neighbor might paint his house an ugly color, park ugly cars in front, and otherwise do things that incidentally reduce the value of your property. So we must limit the discussion to actual violations of property rights, such as the use of eminent domain to forcibly seize property from those unwilling to voluntarily sell it.

According to State Representative Steve King, McInnis said the government “is no longer threatening eminent domain in the Piñon Canyon expansion.” Apparently, then, McInnis’s support of the project assumed that eminent domain would not be used.

However, the Fifth Amendment states that private property may be taken for public use for just compensation. Do McInnis’s critics wish to claim that government ought never use eminent domain, even though the Constitution explicitly authorizes it? That’s my position, but I think McInnis’s critics need to detail their views. If Republicans are going to beat up their candidates for considering eminent domain for an obviously public use, that’s a high bar, and one that should be set intentionally rather than as a pretext for partisan attacks.

Another comment by McInnis on the matter is more troubling. According to the Post, McInnis said, “Balancing the deep need that Colorado has for quality jobs with the rights of Piñon Canyon property owners requires leadership and dialogue.”

I believe that property rights should be consistently protected, not “balanced” against some alleged need to forcibly seize property for somebody else to use. I would be interested to learn if McInnis’s Republican critics believe that eminent domain should be abolished across the board, or if they merely want to restrict the practice to somebody else’s property.

In the meantime, it would be helpful if McInnis would further clarify his views on eminent domain and property rights.

Should Government Own Wilderness?

The following article originally appeared in Grand Junction’s Free Press on June 9.

Should the government own, manage wilderness?

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

Just how far do we want to push our free-market agenda? The short answer is all the way. A free market means that people’s rights to control their resources and associate with others voluntarily, so long as they don’t violate the rights of others, are consistently protected. It means that the initiation of force is outlawed. The alternative is coercion: taking people’s resources by force and and threatening them with jail for not doing what you want.

Here’s how the argument has developed so far. On April 28, we argued that government (including the town of Fruita) should not forcibly take money from people to subsidize recreation facilities.

On May 12 we replied to Keith J. Pritchard’s concern about externalities, in this case a benefit (such as keeping kids off the streets) not funded by the beneficiaries. We argued that, by Pritchard’s reasoning, government should seize control of the entire economy. “The system of individual rights provides justice as well as the best framework for solving economic problems,” we wrote.

But, Pritchard complained, we did not address one of his points. By our logic, Pritchard wrote, “we should auction off all public parks, BLM land, State Parks, and National Forest to the highest bidder!”

A lot of conservatives would reply to such a challenge by invoking pragmatism: “Of course we don’t want to auction off public lands, but we need a balanced approach that lets government subsidize only some things, not others, and take by force only some of our money, not all of it.” Regular readers know that’s not our answer.

Pritchard’s complaint is intended to cut off any principled approach. If we want wilderness areas, then what’s wrong with Fruita subsidizing a recreation facility? Surely we have to compromise and agree that government must control some industries, even if there’s no clear standard to decide what government should control and what should be left to the voluntarist free market.

We refuse to sanction the mixed economy, the current blend of some liberty and some socialist controls. We advocate liberty, all the time, without exception.

Politically, of course, it’s usually easier to stop the government takeover of something new (such as a recreation facility) than to restore a government-controlled entity to the free market. Even though there’s no reason whatever for the national government to run trains or deliver the mail, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) and the United States Post Office have resisted market reforms. Trains and mail remain largely socialized industries.

At least government-run businesses should be self-financing. For example, the gasoline tax is a fairly effective fee-for-use that funds government-owned roads. In Denver, though some lines of the RTD receive heavy subsidies, properly the lines should charge enough to cover costs. If people are not willing to pay enough to ride on a line to keep it operational, it should be closed down.

Many government-run wilderness areas require fees. If you head up the road to Vega Reservoir, you’ll find that you must purchase a state park’s pass. The showers there cost money. The campgrounds and facilities should charge enough to cover all costs, so as not to unfairly compete with the private facilities near the lake. If you go to Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ll pay a fee at the gate.

We ask a simple question: why do you think government does a better job managing wilderness areas than individuals and organizations would do on a free market? The pine-beetle infestation is at least partly the result of inept forest management.

Do you think government would do a better job building cars, growing food, erecting houses, and sewing clothes? People tried that in the last century, and it didn’t work out so well. Then why do you think government is uniquely qualified to manage wilderness areas?

We do not, as Pritchard claims, think all wilderness areas should be sold to the highest bidder. In some cases, the land should be given or sold to its current users. For example, Powderhorn leases most of its land from the Forest Service, and the company has a vested interest in caring for the land.

It seems that organizations like the Sierra Club complain most loudly about federal wilderness management. Therefore, we suggest simply giving many federal lands to the Sierra Club or similar groups. We’re confident they would do a good job managing the land, and they’d be more open to charging fees for use and even drilling to pay for land management. The rest could be transfered to a privatized Forest Service or sold, with the proceeds used to pay down the national debt.

We enjoy wilderness areas as much as the next person. We also enjoy eating. That doesn’t mean we want the government to nationalize farms or forests. America is about liberty, and that is the principle to which we should return.

Broken Trail

Over the Christmas holiday, I watched the film Broken Trail with family members. It’s a two-disk, three-hour movie that was made for television. I get the idea that it was filmed mostly or entirely in Canada, and the scenery is spectacular. The movie, starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church, is surprisingly good. (I was surprised because I’d never heard of it before.)

It’s a classic Western. The two cowboys — Duvall plays the uncle of Church’s character — leverage the family ranch in order to buy a herd of horses. Their purpose is to move the herd from Oregon to Wyoming, where the horses are in demand for military use. (A major buyer works out of Wyoming.) Along the way, the cowboys must overcome obstacles natural and man-made. Early in their travels, they come across a man who is transporting five young Chinese girls, whose families sold them into slavery. They are on their way to a brothel in a mean town. Needless to say, our heroes do not get on well with the slave runner. But what are a couple of cowboys supposed to do with five girls in a vast wilderness while running horses? Unfortunately, the owner of the brothel wants the seize the girls, and she knows some unsavory characters.

Such a movie easily could have been routine. But interesting dialogue and heartfelt, edgy acting from Duvall and Church make it memorable. It is a movie of strong heroes and dastardly villains, and I like that. But the heroes, with all of their financial resources tied up in the horses, have to struggle with their fears, tempers, and difficult pasts to stick together and find the strength to be towering men. Nicely done.

The movie is available at Netflix and Amazon, I noticed. I plan to buy a copy.