All Commentary
Tuesday, December 1, 1998

The Tyranny of the Proper

Coercion Is the Wrong Tool for Enforcing Propriety

Jon Sanders is a research associate for the Pope Center for Higher Education Reform in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, a program of the John Locke Foundation.

One strain of the vampire legend holds that the bloodsucking fiends can enter people’s homes only with their victims’ consent. Similarly, government can enter an area only if its citizens allow it. Charity, for instance, was once no province of government. Neither was medical care. Nor were health and manners. But today people are carelessly welcoming the fiend, seeking legislative prohibition of activities they consider unhealthy and unmannerly.

The most far-reaching example is California’s ban on smoking in bars, which completes its total ban on smoking in public areas. Most of the activities under legislative fire are things—smoking, drinking, eating fatty foods—that bring many people pleasure but that many other people consider rude or unhealthy. At one time people ignored activities they disliked and avoided places (like bars) where they took place. Nowadays the easily offended insist that the government ensure that no building or gathering contains whatever social ill offends them.

Citizens in a free society, however, should never confuse their right to disdain rudeness with the government’s ability to outlaw it. Our rights protect the boorish along with unboorish, the healthy with the unhealthy. Those rights exist for everyone or not at all. If society outlaws smoking, then it takes away the right to smoke. What it leaves is not, however, the right not to smoke—that would imply a choice. When a government makes the choice, then what it grants those who would, in a free society, choose not to smoke is not a right but a convenience.

Many people, of course, would prefer that fewer of their fellow citizens smoked, drank, wore perfume, played music loud, ran air conditioners, or read Huckleberry Finn. And they would use government to end those activities and enforce what they deem proper. If we wish to be free, however, we should work to keep the government out of trivial matters. We would do better to remember the words of George Santayana: “A man may not always eat and drink what is good for him; but it is better for him and less ignominious to die of the gout freely than to have a censor officially appointed over his diet, who after all could not render him immortal.”

Santayana has pinpointed one problem with the health despots’ mantra that “If you do x [whether x is smoke, drink, or partake of Chicken McNuggets], you will die.” Even if you abstain, you will still die.

Changing Fashions

Another problem with this tyranny of the proper is the transience of what society considers proper. Think of how much and how often the “proper” fashion and dress have changed in this century. Even the proper body shape has changed, in just a matter of decades. Compare Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe to Kate Moss and Uma Thurman. Men’s fashion has not been immune either: for example, no longer are hats worn as business attire.

Society’s tastes in food, music, sports, and other things are equally transient. So, too, is what society deems proper and improper. For this reason alone, it is foolish for any generation to seek legislation to codify what it considers proper. Doing so imposes on future generations the tastes of their predecessors.

For instance, society today considers a low-fat diet to be proper because fat is seen as related to heart disease and early death. The marketplace quickly responded to society’s wishes with a glut of low-fat or no-fat food products. Despite that market response, some people consider personal health something the government should be involved with anyway. That’s not a new idea; we already have “sin taxes” on such “unhealthy” items as beer, wine, and cigarettes. These people would have sin taxes applied to other unhealthy consumables—“Twinkies,” for example.

Others either want unhealthy items banned altogether or seek to punish their producers for providing them to the public. Their targets are not limited to tobacco and beer, however. As Doug Bandow reported last August in Investor’s Business Daily, the health despots are also going after fast-food restaurants, chemical manufacturers, gun makers, caffeine, meat, and even milk.

Unhealthy Restrictions

Aside from being priggishly autocratic, dictating notions of health to all following generations may actually be unhealthy. Against centuries of warnings about the dangers of alcohol, recent studies have found that for many people, moderate consumption of alcohol can be more healthy than abstinence. Another recent study suggests that a high-fat diet reduces the risks of stroke for men (“Study Suggests Eating Saturated Fat Might Ward Off Strokes in Men,” Detroit Free Press, Dec. 24, 1997). And smoking may lower the cancer risk for some women (AP wire story, May 20, 1998).

Thus, uncertainty over what is healthy or proper is another important reason to keep government out of these arenas. Let people decide for themselves what they want, and let science help them choose. If enough people decide a certain activity is undesirable, let them discourage it not by legislation but by peer pressure.

Peer pressure is a powerful enough societal impetus to enforce the “proper.” Nevertheless, a free society allows those who prefer to resist that pressure to do so. In issues of public taste, coercion is the wrong tool for enforcing propriety. It is like using a baseball bat to play tennis.

There is, however, an even greater reason government should stay out of the realm of health and manners: the erosion of freedom. Just because some people make what most people consider to be the wrong choices does not mean government should do the choosing. Allowing foolish choices is far wiser than sacrificing the freedom to choose. As Gandhi said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err.”

To revise John Donne, no freedom is an island, entire of itself. Every freedom is a part of the main. If a freedom is taken away, society is the less. Every freedom’s death diminishes us all.

  • Jon Sanders (@jonpsanders) is director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina.