Thursday, August 10, 2006

The insidious plot to accurately study things

Calling yourself a libertarian doesn't mean much anymore. You could be a respectable conservative who doesn't hate gays, a civil liberties advocate, a torture supporter, a simple corporate whore, a Universal Health-Care supporting liberal partisan, or even – god bless them – a real-life philosophical libertarian weaned on Ayn Rand and the one true faith of every-free-market-is-an-efficient-one-ism.

The really wondrous thing about the last group is how fervently they reject any kind of social responsibility. I read Hit and Run, the libertarian blog because I get to see people like Jacob Sullum display the wonders of purse ideological reasoning:
USA Today reports with alarm that researchers have found cotinine, a nicotine metabolite, in the urine and hair of babies who live with smokers—even when their parents did not smoke in their presence. It seems components of tobacco smoke cling to smokers and to household surfaces and get picked up by babies who come into contact with these intermediaries, a phenomenon "some doctors are calling 'thirdhand' smoke." Even something as seemingly benign as a mother's hug may be passing along deadly toxins and carcinogens!

Not until the second-to-last paragraph do we get this caveat, courtesy of "Brett Singer, a scientist at California's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory": "The million-dollar question is: How dangerous is this?...We can't say for sure this is a health hazard."
A person unfamiliar with libertarianism might not predict where this is heading. A regular person might think something like “Ok, babies might be in trouble, we should really study this more” or “Good thing we did this study. I wouldn’t want to accidentally hurt my child or someone elses.” You might think something like that, but apparently, according to Sullum, you’d be missing the point:
Notice where the logic of "thirdhand smoke" leads us. Not only are parents who smoke around their children, or in the same house as their children, or even outside that house, guilty of child abuse; anyone who smokes is potentially guilty as well, since the contaminants may be passed along via residue in a room later occupied by children, physical contact with children, or physical contact with some third party who later interacts with children (although that would be "fourthhand smoke," I guess). To err on the side of caution—which is where we always should err when it comes to the welfare of children, of course—everyone should just stop smoking right now. Then there won't be any need to call the cops.
As liberal I think personal autonomy is great, but certain personal actions do negatively affect others and this leads to moral obligations. Furthermore, if the negative effect is great enough, I think a valid state interest is created and laws should be passed. Obviously we’d prefer not to, but it’s better than the alternative.

To the libertarians at Hit and Run however, the real problem isn’t sick babies. No, it’s involuntary legal obligations. I think that says it all right there.

You know, if someone was actually trying to ban all smoking based on this Sollum would have half a point. Since that’s not the case it’s pretty clear that he’s just kind of crazy.

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