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Smokers Away

Mises Daily: Monday, September 27, 1999 by

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The hypocrisy of the federal government appears limitless. Now it’s suing the big tobacco companies for $25 billion. Mind you, they’re not going after the cigar companies, which, of course, don’t have "deep pockets." Just cigarettes smokers and makers—America’s most embattled minority.

How can the government sue these companies? It sanctioned the sale of cigarettes for years. It collected billions of dollars in taxes. It gave free butts to its military for decades. It knew for years that smokes are dangerous. But it waits until now to say anything about illegality?

Moreover, the government is headed by a man who smokes cigars, and the number two man in the government used to brag that he farmed tobacco (that is until he found out that he could exploit his sister’s death from lung cancer to win re-election in 1996).

On what legal or moral basis can the government sue? It’s one thing for an individual to sue big tobacco--although how someone could say he or she didn’t know that too much smoking causes health problems is a great mystery. But the government has all the legal authority to do this as a bunch of shakedown artists.

The government has gotten rich off the profits of big tobacco. Now, apparently, it wants a lot more. If there’s any crime here, the government is virtually a co-conspirator. The government was delighted to collect huge taxes. If smoking was wrong---and apparently only smoking cigs is evil, not, for the moment, cigars or pipes---why did the government accept the billions of dollars in taxes? Why did it push these products with its military?

By the way, the government, with its vast resources at both the federal and state levels, can sue you, me or any industry. It can destroy a person’s life (see the Sedition Act period of World War I, FDR’s political prosecutions, and recent targeted audits). It can destroy an industry (private railroads, housing in New York City that was ruined by idiotic, politically motivated rent control laws, etc), but what practical recourse does the individual have when a government blunders? Meanwhile, Janet Reno will never have to worry about the consequences of any ridiculous lawsuits she’s filed.

Even if you don’t care about the fate of tobacco companies per se, you should care about private property. If the government can arrogate the private property of tobacco execs, then it can take the property of anyone and everyone.

I am reminded of the Robert Caro biography of Robert Moses ("Power Broker"). In the 20s, the New York public seemed to cheer when Moses ran roughshod over the rights of the rich who owned estates on Long Island so he could start building the state park system. That was ok. Who doesn’t hate the rich? Along with obese people in 1999, these are minorities who one can rip and suffer no consequences.

However, later in his career, when Moses moved against working-class neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn, then---and only then---did Moses finally run into some opposition, although the Cross-Bronx Expressway (a monument to the stupidity and arrogance of government planners) was still built. Every time my car goes over this nightmare of a road I think of the poltroon pols who were happy to allow Moses to have unlimited power as long as he trampled on the rights of politically impotent groups.

Where will this all end? Today, the tobacco industry. Tomorrow the liquor industry. What’s after that? Who knows? But remember hooligans don’t stop after one or two successes. They become emboldened and will go after anyone and everyone that the pc police momentarily decides has run afoul of their standards. Careers are wrecked. Businesses destroyed. Liberty is endangered.

Woodrow Wilson, the great hero of today’s liberals (who really are more socialists than liberals) should read up on history. Wilson illegally jailed tens of thousands of Americans whose "crime" was they opposed World War I. FDR not only jailed loyal Japanese-Americans, he connived in the theft of their property. Wilson’s actions, of course, encouraged government and private "patriotic" groups to outlaw the teaching of German and the playing of Beethoven.

That this same government sets itself up as a moral authority; that it implicitly claims the right to persecute people for ex-posto facto crimes, is why I believe the only way for liberty to be safe in any country is to have a weak, de-centralized, limited government. Wasn’t that the promise of the original constitution, which, unsurprisingly, is scorned by today’s pc types?

The rule of law---especially the concept of the Der Rechtsstaat, a German philosophical legal tradition holding that governments must be subject to law, a tradition spanning Immanuel Kant to Gneist---becomes a mockery. Why do we accept this? Remember, like Vietnam, the idiotic Gulf War and the despicable 79 days of useless bombing in the Balkans, it’s all being done with our money and in our name. This is what we want? In the words of income-tax hating W.C. Fields, "include me out."

Let’s face the truth: The government wants to go ahead with various health care and other new social welfare boondoggles. The average American will not accept higher taxes to pay for more failed social programs that have a wonderful record of building dependency and of discouraging independence.

So where does the government go for more money? Attack the rich. Attack the big fat tobacco companies. After all, many people think, it’s not going to affect me. So why should I get excited when an injustice is perpetrated? After all, these people think, I was never particularly fond of some minority, anyway.

Myopia has always been dangerous to libertyI don’t smoke; why should I care if the tobacco companies are destroyed? Let the wolves have their fun, the average person thinks, as long as they leave me alone. That is a terrible mistake. If the government gets away with this, then the security of all private property is endangered.

The idea of private property is that it supposed to be a brake on the power of government. It is a place where, supposedly, we can enjoy our lives in our own way. Where we can feel secure. If there is a justification for a minimal government, it is to ensure that people can enjoy their property under law.

How can any property owner feel secure if every property owner doesn’t feel secure? What’s happening to big tobacco can happen to any other business, any other industry. What happens to any business can happen to any individual. Many of us who think we are law-abiding people may be today committing crimes that will result in disastrous lawsuits costing millions and maybe billions of dollars in damages. And for those with the greatest potential for success, for entrepreneurial success, are the most in danger.

Sinclair Lewis, who over 60 years ago wrote a novel about a fascist America, was right: It can happen here. Buzz Windrip (The central character of the novel who is obviously Huey Long) may well turn out to be Bill Clinton. Will we let these "economic populists" succeed?

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Gregory Bresiger writes from New York.


Read an article on the same topic from The Economist.

And on the tobacco "settlement" generally, see Smokes and the State.

All of this was forecasted in 1995: see Mark Thornton's Are Cigarettes Doomed?