Brad’s Smoking and Bare-Knuckle Boxing Emporium!

If you’ve been keeping up with things, you’ll have noticed that smoking bans have become the new (old) debate. Columnist Bill Fergusen explains why a libertarian can support such bans:

That’s why this libertarian supports efforts to restrict smoking in public places not clearly designated as smoking zones. Smokers should have the right to smoke, and I should have the right to breathe clean air. That means no smoking in generally accessible areas like workplaces, restaurants, and stores, except in clearly designated, and separately ventilated, areas.

Well, this has garnered some attention for Fergusen, which was probably his intent. Of course, more type is being spent asking whether he’s really a libertarian than anything else. Stephen van Dyke takes issue with this, Sean Lynch of Catallarchy responded that fighting smoking bans should be about #258 on a libertarian to-do list, and Atlas Blogged suggested that the smoking bans should be a libertarian litmus test.

Now, I’ve posted on smoking bans before, and there’s rarely more to be said. But this comment to the post at Atlas Blogged really got to me:

My perspective then, since I believe that secondhand smoke is harmful, is that a smoker should be allowed to harm themselves but should not be allowed to harm others.

No one is allowed to randomly throw knives in a restaurant, because that’s harmful. No one should be allowed to fill the room with smoke that others have no choice but to breathe, because that’s harmful.

You might say, “You do have a choice. Leave if you don’t like it.” Then I should also just leave if I don’t like someone throwing knives. But I don’t have to worry about knives, because it’s illegal for people to throw knives in restaurants. I shouldn’t have to worry about breathing secondhand smoke in restaurants either.

The only reason the analogy may sound absurd is because you don’t believe that secondhand smoke is harmful. Get hit by a knife, you see the immediate and obvious damage. Inhale a lungful of secondhand smoke and you don’t see immediate damage, but it’s happening nonetheless (albeit much more slowly than a direct hit from a flying knife).

Should a restaurant be free to allow smokers to smoke throughout their building? On the surface, it seems the answer should be “yes.” But should they also be free to allow knife-throwing inside as long as they post a sign on the front door that reads “Knife-throwing Allowed”? No.

I think there’s another problem with that analogy. To go on with the “your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose”, what if I wanted to start my own little “Fight Club”. I buy a little store, set up a boxing ring, and everyone who wants can come in and get into a fistfight.

Assault is illegal. But if I have consenting adults fighting in my ring, are anyones rights being violated? And if so, how is the sport of boxing (or football, or any other contact sport) any different? It’s true, it might not be knife-throwing, but I think there’s undoubtedly be the occasional injury in my “Fight Club”. And the normal rules, if I remember the movie correctly, is that you come to “Fight Club”, you fight; there are no spectators.

Now, would it be fair for me to wait until someone randomly walks into my store to ask for directions, and haul off and jack them in the face? Of course not. They haven’t consented to such behavior. And the knife-throwing (or smoking) analogy fits, if someone must be exposed to that before they have the ability to withhold their consent, but that’s a pretty minor issue in the long run, at least with the smoking part.

I agree with Atlas Blogged, this makes a great litmus test for libertarians. A libertarian can support smoking bans in places like hospitals, perhaps government buildings, places where you have no choice but to consent or not consent. But I don’t see any way to logically allow smoking bans in places like restaurants, bars, workplaces, etc that people can choose whether or not to attend.

  • Skeptico

    Since the majority of restaurants allow smoking (if there is no ban) then I don’t really have much of a choice if I want to avoid smoke, except not eat at restaurants.

    Or if a group of friends happen to book a party at a smoking restaurant, I don’t have much choice except not join my friends that night.

    Or if I want to go to a nightclub and don’t want smoke my only choice is not to go out to a nightclub (since there are no no-smoking nightclubs in the absence of a ban).

    In reality I have no liberty to avoid smoke unless it is banned in these places, unless your definition of “liberty” means “stay home if you don’t like it”.

  • Francois Tremblay

    Your litmus test is broken. I am against smoking bans anywhere, especially in government buildings. Government property is the LAST place where we should be told what to do.

  • rammage

    Skeptico –

    You could move to California, or NY, or DC, or Montgomery County, MD, or any number of places around the country now implementing smoking bans in restaurants or bars.

    The question should be: Where are smokers to go once smoking bans finally become ubiquitous? (Unless your definition of “liberty” means “stay home if you don’t like it”.)

  • Brad Warbiany


    So your definition of liberty is that you can make anyone you’d like run their business on their private property according to your demands?


    Regarding government buildings, being against smoking bans doesn’t make you non-libertarian. My point was that I can see making exceptions for places where you cannot give consent, i.e. a courthouse that you are legally summoned to, without having to turn in your libertarian credentials. If you choose not to make those exceptions, that doesn’t make you non-libertarian.

  • Wulf

    Francois, please indulge me long enough to read the comments section from this post. I feel that it addresses your point about government buildings.

  • Boon

    Your Fight Club analogy is incorrect when applied to the smoking ban argument. Would you say that if a person shows up at a bar with smokers they therefore consent to breathe in the smoke? If your answer to that question is “yes”, then you would also have to agree that if a person goes to a boxing match as a spectator then they have no cause for complaint if they are hit by a boxer.

    Last time I checked, consenting mutual agreement means that both parties agree on the situation in question.

  • John Newman

    It all comes back to property rights. If you are the ownwer of a bar, eatery, etc., you should have the right to set your own rules on your property. These bans and government propoganda of ‘filthy smokers’ and made up health problems from second hand smoke is right out of the Nazis playbook, literally, on demonizing smokers.
    will give any reasonable person an honest perspective on the health issues.

  • Skeptico


    So your definition of “liberty” means you have to move state if you don’t want smoke. LMAO – how generous of you. Smokers can smoke before and after going to a bar or restaurant, or can go to the smoking area outside, but the non-smoker has to move home. What a joke.

  • Skeptico

    Brad: I was merely disputing the main assumption of the original post, which was that someone who doesn’t want smoke can merely chose to go to a different restaurant, bar etc. I was pointing out that, in reality, there that option doesn’t exist if you live in a place with no smoking ban. If you think smokers’ rights or bar-owners’ right trump non-smokers rights then make that case, but please don’t pretend that smokers have the option just to choose to go to a different bar.

  • Skeptico


    The above should read “don’t pretend that NON-smokers have the option…”.

    Too early in the morning.

  • Wulf

    Skeptico, I know of a few places that ban smoking as a private policy. If you don’t, and you live in a place where smoking has not been banned by government, then I would say either,
    1) you haven’t looked very hard, or
    2) you have a great business opportunity.

  • John T. Kennedy

    “A libertarian can support smoking bans in places like hospitals, perhaps government buildings, places where you have no choice but to consent or not consent.”

    Why don’t you have a choice with hospitals? You could wear a bracelet that says: “Do not put me in a smoking hospital”.

  • Brad Warbiany


    As I mentioned to Francois, there are certain gray areas where libertarians can disagree. I would say that an ER, where your goal is to get to the closest place you possibly can to save your life, is a different situation than a restaurant.

    When you get into the gray areas, I’d say that the “pure” libertarian viewpoint would be to oppose government smoking bans in government buildings or hospitals. But I accept that it’s a gray area, and that there’s disagreement within libertarianism on the subject, while still considering it a possible “litmus test”.

  • Stephen Littau

    While I disagree with Fergusen’s notion that non-smoking ADULTS have a right to be in a non-smoking environment, I think he has a great point when it comes to children. I think the key to this issue is the level of choice an individual has in entering a smoking environment. Children for the most part do not have a choice whether to be in a smoking or non-smoking environment. Your exceptions of hospitals and government property are also valid because an individual rarely has a choice when summoned by the government to appear.

    I recognize that ‘the children’ exception is a very slippery slope. My take on the children’s rights issue was one that put me at odds with many fellow Libertarians nearly a year ago when I wrote my own series on the topic. Many of my questions I posed in that series still have no good answers. The main question is: Where do we draw the line? No matter where it is drawn, someone’s rights will be violated.

    I am pretty sure though that a smoking ban for daycare centers would be reasonable. Bars on the other hand, let’s be honest: when ADULTS go to a bar they are not that concerned about their health at the moment. People drink alcohol, bring home strangers and have unprotected sex, and (gasp!) smoke cigarettes. Requiring a bar to be smoke free is like having a whore house without the whores.

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