Among the mythologies of the pseudo-libertarian ideology fashionable among modern Republicans is the notion that any government regulation is an unconscionable assault on individual liberty and, if left alone, individuals will themselves make decisions that are ultimately good for the community.
There is no clearer proof that this is an asinine theory than the current debate regarding smoking bans in the Lowcountry, where the City of North Charleston recently decided against enacting a ban on smoking. After all, how long should the community wait for individuals to realize that their personal liberties are negatively affecting everyone else?
Smoking bans are nothing new. One of the earliest dates back to the middle of the 1500s when Mexico and some Spanish holdings in the Caribbean banned tobacco consumption inside churches (which is now such a common thing that it is hard to imagine that one could ever smoke in church). One wonders if such bans were as controversial back then as they are today. Regardless, I doubt smokers 500 years ago thought that the ability to smoke whenever and wherever they pleased was considered to be a right, as many do today.
Today's pro-smoking libertarian crowd is focused primarily on the perceived right of business owners to do what they want with their businesses, a point made moot by existing regulations detailing exactly what business owners may or may not do. The pro-puffers also like to proclaim that patrons are free to pick and choose businesses that either ban or allow smoking and then act as if this one "freedom" is the only benchmark of a free society.
Business owners, naturally, tend to view themselves as individuals who should have the right to allow or ban smoking as they see fit. This ignores the simple fact that there exists a communitarian aspect to any business that is open to the public and which employs individuals other than the proprietor. As a result, the government has the right to regulate and legislate these businesses. Safety standards, wage guarantees, and equal hiring policies are all part of this arrangement, as are restrictions even on hours of operation.
As for patrons, how their rights are affected one way or the other is unclear. After all, they truly are the ones with the most choice in the matter, and they are going to go somewhere no matter what bans or regulations are in place. Otherwise, most of the bars in places like New York City would have dried up years ago, as would most churches.
Ultimately, though, smoking bans most benefit those who are often least mentioned — the workers who spend anywhere from four to 10 (or more) hours a day in smoke-filled bars and restaurants. When they are mentioned, it is usually with the most rational and reasoned of conservative mantras, "If you do not like where you work, you are free to go elsewhere." Of course, the individuals who spout this kind of nonsense ignore the fact that jobs aren't as plentiful as they used to be.
For people who claim to be interested in Constitutional government, it seems that ignoring the parts that disagree with their ideology is common. The Constitution in all its vaguely worded glory does contain references to both personal liberty and the general welfare. How a society balances those two concepts is as important as having either one of them individually, and it is this balancing act that few people readily accept in modern politics.
One accepted premise of individual rights is that mine end where yours begin. In other words a person should be free to do what she likes as long it does not infringe on another's freedom to do the same. Smoking in public places, even "private" businesses, is not an inviolate right. As Canadian conservative writer Rachel Marsden puts it, "Smoke anywhere you want, but do it with a plastic bag tied over your head, please. Then everyone is happy. Smokers lament the law becoming increasingly restrictive as to where they can light up in public, but it's only because enough of them have chosen to behave in a manner that restricted others' freedom not to smoke."
Ultimately, the inability to understand that personal behavior affects communities and that legislation is sometimes required to achieve a balance between individual freedom and the needs of the community is the fundamental failure of the pseudo-libertarian ideology. True libertarianism understands the difference between personal rights and infringing on the rights of others just to fulfill a selfish desire, and it is this libertarianism that informs the best public policy decisions. The City of North Charleston's vote against a smoking ban is not one of the best by a long shot.