Montreal, August 15, 2005 • No 157




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.




by Bradley Doucet


          Travelling is a wonderful thing. It's great to leave everything behind for a week or two, or even just for a weekend. The change of scenery does a body good, and just seeing how other people live is mind-expanding. I recently travelled to New Brunswick for a week of sightseeing and visiting with family. Almost everyone I met was warm and friendly, and the sights were spectacular.


          I have to say, though, that as pleasant as my trip was, I cannot imagine myself living in the Maritimes. I am a city boy, you see. I have lived in Montreal for fifteen years now, and have grown quite accustomed to the bustle of the metropolis. I like the seemingly limitless possibilities of the big city, the countless restaurants and music venues, the many cinemas and theatres, the ever-shifting multitudes of humanity in all of their colourful variety. I do not understand why everyone does not choose to live here.

          Of course, those who choose to live in the smaller cities and towns of New Brunswick probably don't understand why I would give up the beautiful vistas and friendly faces of their world to live in a place where the din of traffic is never absent; where light pollution hides all but the brightest of stars in the night sky; where you actually have to lock your car when you leave it.

          Thankfully, it is not necessary for me to understand why other people make the choices they make, nor is it necessary for them to understand me. Someone chooses to forego the excitement of Montreal for the calm of Miramichi? It does me no harm. So-and-so has made lifestyle choices I personally find uninspiring? To each his own. I don't get it, but I don't have to. I can speculate about whether others are really happy with their choices, but I can't get inside their heads. I'll never really know what's going on with any but the closest of my friends, but that's okay. Live and let live. It's a free country. Or is it?

Smoke and Mirrors

          The idea of tolerating the choices made by other people, as incomprehensible as we may find them, is central to any serious consideration of liberty. As long as person and property are safe from the initiation of force, human beings should be allowed the maximum room in which to live their lives. In many ways, we Canadians do enjoy a significant degree of such freedom. In other ways, though, we do not.

          One example of our lack of freedom that was in the news while I was travelling is the War on Drugs. It was in the news due to the arrest of Marc Emery, pot dealer, leader of the B.C. Marijuana Party, and, judging by the holy wrath of the drug warriors, first spawn of Satan. Under pressure from the United States DEA, the RCMP arrested Mr. Emery for selling marijuana seeds over the internet, and he is now under threat of extradition to face trial south of the border where penalties for drug crimes are measured in decades instead of years.

          Some people do not understand why any decent person would choose to ingest marijuana, even though by all accounts it is on the same level as alcohol, and in some ways far less pernicious. Ever heard of a pot-smoker going home after a night of partying and then beating his wife? Anyone who has known any actual marijuana users finds the very suggestion laughable, yet the drunken wife-beater is a well-worn clichι. That our society currently tolerates alcohol but not marijuana is a testament to the power of ignorance and prejudice. That Mr. Emery, guilty only of peaceful, voluntary transactions, faces serious jail time is just the most recent in a long line of shameful injustices on the prohibition file.

          Another related example of Canadians' less-than-exemplary commitment to liberty is the ongoing crusade against that other popular weed, tobacco. New Brunswick is one of the many jurisdictions in Canada and elsewhere that have recently banned smoking in all so-called public places, including privately-owned restaurants and bars, and the province of Quebec is set to follow suit next year. According to a front-page article in the August 12th edition of the National Post, as fewer and fewer Canadians are lighting up, we are also becoming less and less tolerant of those who choose to keep smoking. If the Statistics Canada poll is to be believed, 57% of us believe smoking should be banned in restaurants, and 37% say it should be banned in bars, up from 42% and 26% respectively just four years ago.

"The State today is like an overprotective parent, extremely risk-averse with regard to its 'children,' with the predictably perverse result of infantilizing us little by little."

          Now smoking is a risky behaviour. It increases, to a significant and measurable degree, one's risk of developing a variety of health problems, including lung cancer. It is also habit-forming and physically addictive. However, even if we accept the much more tenuous claims about the dangers of second-hand smoke, there is no proper justification for banning smoking in restaurants and bars. Patrons who do not wish to be exposed to smoky environments are free to choose to frequent non-smoking or well-ventilated establishments. Workers who dislike what they deem to be a hazardous work environment are free either to work elsewhere or to negotiate increased compensation.

          But the true goal of the anti-tobacco lobby is not to protect non-smokers from hazardous restaurants – it is to protect smokers from themselves. Sometimes the spectre of projected health care costs is raised, but this is also a distraction, as smokers die younger, on average, and may in fact end up costing the health care monopoly less money. No, protecting taxpayers is not the real goal either. The fact is that smokers have made an unacceptable choice, and the crusaders will not rest until the smokers fall in line.

Splurging on Acupuncture

          One final example of risky health choices some find hard to understand is the risk of choosing to be without health care insurance. In fact, this is a choice unavailable to Canadians, who suffer under a universal health care insurance monopoly. Most of us cannot even fathom that anyone would make such a choice, and so we assume that all of those Americans who are without health care insurance must be so involuntarily. Such frightening interpretations serve to keep us from considering alternatives to our own faltering system. In reality, many Americans do freely choose to forego health care coverage even though they are perfectly capable of affording it (see "Two myths about the U.S. health care system").

          There are some Americans, though, who are effectively denied private health care insurance (as effectively as all Canadians are) and, predictably enough, the government is to blame, according to a Wall Street Journal article reprinted in the July 26th edition of the National Post. The working poor, who are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, must buy their own insurance if they are to have any, but under current laws, they must shop in their own state. The problem is that some states are much more heavily regulated than others. In a less-regulated state like Missouri, a family of four could get a basic insurance policy for $172 a month, writes the Journal, but in New York that same family's only option would be a more extensive (and expensive) policy for a whopping $840. State laws mandating that all insurance policies cover things like podiatry and chiropractic are to blame for the discrepancy.

          All of that might just change in the foreseeable future if the House Energy and Commerce Committee has its way. They have just approved a bill that would allow Americans to buy health insurance from providers in any of the fifty states. The bill would effectively restore, at least in the realm of health insurance, what some claim is the original meaning of the Constitutional power to "regulate" interstate commerce, i.e., "to make regular." That family of four living in New York could buy basic insurance from that company in Missouri for $172 instead of being forced to pay extra for acupuncture coverage.

The Cost of Caring Too Much

          The State today is like an overprotective parent, extremely risk-averse with regard to its "children," with the predictably perverse result of infantilizing us little by little. "Mommy" doesn't understand why you would want to smoke cigarettes, so if she catches you either smoking in the wrong place or simply allowing your little brother or sister to be smoking in the wrong place, she'll take away your allowance for a couple of weeks, and if you do it again it will be for a couple of months. "Daddy" doesn't understand, even as he gets drunk on profits from the sale of alcohol, why you would want to get high smoking pot, so if he catches you engaging in the voluntary exchange of marijuana for money, your victimless crime could get you sent to your room for literally years on end. Most of all, "Mommy" and "Daddy" don't want you playing with those kids from across the tracks – you know, those bad folks from Missouri who want to sell you cut-rate insurance?

          In a truly free and just society, the state will not limit the choices adults make with regard to risk any more than it will tell them whether to live in the city or in the countryside. Rather, the laws will allow people the maximum possible number of choices, leaving them free to carry out their own experiments in living, each attempting to create the best life she can. What if some of those people make choices we do not understand, creating lives we ourselves would not want to live? No one will force us to conform to their ways, and we in turn will respectfully refrain from initiating the use of force to make them conform to ours.

          A truly free and just society is not a pipe dream. It will take some doing, of course, but in the end, all it really takes for it to become a reality is for enough of us to choose it.