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Walter Williams
Walter E. Williams
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Dupes for the State


Public misunderstanding, ignorance and possibly contempt for liberty play into the hands of people who want to control our lives. Responses to my recent column "Compliant Americans" brought this home to me. In it, I argued that the anti-tobacco movement became the template and inspiration for other forms of government intrusion, such as bans on restaurants serving foie gras, McDonald's giving Happy Meals with toys, and confiscating a child's home-prepared lunch because it didn't meet Department of Agriculture guidelines. A few responses read like this: "Smoking is different because that actually affects other people. We should be living by the notion that you should be able to do whatever you want as long as you don't hurt other people. Smoking hurts other people."

If we banned or restricted all activities that affect, harm or have the possibility of harming other people, it wouldn't be a very nice life. Let's look at what can affect or harm other people. Non-obese people are harmed by obesity, as they have to pay more for health care, through either higher taxes or higher insurance premiums. That harm could be reduced by a national version of a measure introduced in the Mississippi Legislature in 2008 by state Rep. W.T. Mayhall that in part read, "An act to prohibit certain food establishments from serving food to any person who is obese, based on criteria prescribed by the state Department of Health." The measure would have revoked licenses of food establishments that violated the provisions of the act. Fortunately, the measure never passed, but there's always a next time.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2010, nearly 33,000 people were killed in auto crashes. That's a lot of harm that could be reduced by lowering the speed limit to 5 or 10 miles an hour.

You say, "Williams, that's ridiculous!" What you really mean to say but don't have the courage to is that to save all of those lives by making the speed limit 5 or 10 miles per hour is not worth the inconvenience. Needless to say — or almost so — there are many activities we engage in that either cause harm to others or have the potential for doing so, but we don't ban all of these activities.

One of the least-understood functions of private property rights is that of determining who may harm whom in what ways. In a free society, it is presumed that the air in a person's house, restaurant, hotel, car or place of business is his property. That means that if you own a restaurant and don't want your air polluted by tobacco smoke, it is your right. Most would deem it tyranny if a bunch of smokers had the political power to get the city council to pass an ordinance forcing you to permit smoking. You'd probably deem it more respectful of liberty if those who wanted to smoke sought a restaurant owner who permitted smoking. The identical argument can be made about a restaurant owner who permits smoking in a city where nonsmokers have the political power. The issue is not whether smoking harms others. The issue is the rights associated with property ownership.

The emerging tragedy is our increased willingness to use the coercive powers of government, in the name of health or some other ruse, to forcibly impose our preferences upon others. In the whole scheme of things, the tobacco issue itself is trivial. Far more important is its template for massive government disrespect for private property.

John Adams said, "The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence."

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



14 Comments | Post Comment
Mr. Williams,
Why not eliminate the speed limits? You use the example of lowering the limits in the name of safety. Does this mean that you accept the current use of the coercive powers of government in setting the current limits or do you believe that the current limits were given by GOD to Moses on Mount Sinai? We limit the high power sports car to the same speed limit as a big pick-up truck. Isn't this unwarranted intrusion into the safety decisions of the drivers? What about drinking and driving? Shouldn't the government be prohibited from determining some arbitrary standard for permissible alcohol intake when driving? Shouldn't we leave it up the the individual to determine?
What if the restaurant owner wants to use contaminated food to save money? Should we eliminate the coercive powers of government in the health department? If enough customers are poisoned, surely the magic of the market place will take care of the problem.
As I commented on your last column, moderation in all things, including government controls.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Mark
Mon Apr 2, 2012 10:14 PM
Re: Mark
Regarding speed limits, the roads should be privately owned and rules should be set by the owners.
Regarding restaurant owners intentionally poisoning their customers, if you honestly believe that,
you have been hopelessly brainwashed. Private property rights do not give anyone permission to
poison, kill, or assault anyone unless that person is the aggressor.
P.S. If person A is drinking alcohol and harms person B or his property, he should be treated just
like an alcohol-free person or any other substance-abuse-expert idiot who commits the same crime.
It is called personal responsibility. Try it some time, you may like it.
-- Rick [Freedom_First (at) verizon (dot) net]
Comment: #2
Posted by: Rick
Tue Apr 3, 2012 3:22 PM
Re: Rick
The concept of "second hand smoke" is a complete joke because 99.999999% of all air-borne pollution
is caused by the production of electricity, motorized transportation, home heating and cooling, etc.
So, the hypocrit clowns who complain about this belong to a group who produce 99.999999% of all
smoke unless they live in an unheated cave and eat only hay and berries.
-- Rick [Freedom_First (at) verizon (dot) net]
Comment: #3
Posted by: Rick
Tue Apr 3, 2012 3:40 PM
I have spent a fair bit of my life living & working in parts of Asia where there are very few rules regarding food standards, and even less government oversight. Most restaurants seem very concerned about making sure they don't poison their customers, because they know how quickly it would put them out of business.

The expression ‘moderation in all things' is fine when applied by individuals to their own choices, but not when it is used to excuse the use of coercion to achieve ends. For example, only socialists would agree that ‘thou shalt not steal' be moderated to ‘thou shalt not steal unless thou has a good reason'.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Alex Davidson
Tue Apr 3, 2012 4:38 PM
Mr. Williams, you certainly picked a bizarre quote to end your article about property right with.
"The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence."
This was from a guy, John Adams, who vigorously violated people's property rights by sponsoring, and enforcing the Alien and Sedition acts which brutally shut down newspapers who opposed him. And he claims violation of property rights will result in "anarchy and tyranny". Well, which is it? anarchy is the absence of coercive government, and tyranny is a surfeit of coercive government. They are mutually exclusive!
John Adams was just another lawyer and politician who said one thing while doing the polar opposite.
Personally, i wish you would follow your expressed desire to protect personal property to its logical conclusion: that taxation of any kind is theft and is therefore a violation of a person's property. That any government based upon taxation is, therefore, a violation of property rights no matter WHAT excuse it gives. Therefore, all government of any size or stripe needs to be opposed.
I don't expect that to happen though. Most conservatives believe it is perfectly OK to steal as long as they get to spend the money on their pet projects.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Paul the cab Driver
Tue Apr 3, 2012 5:26 PM
An acquaintance of mine was a food inspector in the 1990's. One of the cases he worked was an illegal butcher shop run out of a garage. They got wind of the operation because the neighbors grew tired of listening to the "roach coach" operators yelling at the "butcher" about maggots in the meat. The catering trucks were lined up down the block every morning at 5 am. The best that could be said of the market based corrections was that the mobile restaurant owners did not want to serve meat with obvious maggots. I will stick with government inspectors.
I have libertarian leanings (Don't get me started on the USA PATRIOT act...), but I have a hard time wrapping my brain around your vision of a world where drunks determine if they are okay to drive and pay the penalty only if they actually harm somebody.
The vast majority of air pollution is indeed caused by transportation and energy production. Notice that nasty coercive powers of government have worked hard to reduce the effects of those sources. Air pollution is a fraction of what it was 50 years ago and yet we produce vastly more energy, drive vastly more miles, and heat vastly more homes. Want to see what the air in a libertarian paradise would look like? Visit China.
But that discussion is irrelevant to the second hand smoke issue. The nature of air pollution in general does not matter nearly as much as what goes into the individual's lungs. You can live in the cleanest neighborhood in the city, but will still die if you suck on your car's exhaust pipe. Posit that second hand smoke is the known human carcinogen that science says it is. In that case the restaurant, bar, or airliner owner who exposes his customers and employees to such poison is doing real harm. I do not want to go back to the days that the "right" to smoke took precedence over the right to not be poisoned. In exchange for tolerating what are generally low levels of regional air pollution, we get heated homes, industry, communications, transportation, etc. It is a trade-off that most in society would agree with. I don't see the societal benefit unrestricted smoking.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Mark
Tue Apr 3, 2012 10:46 PM
Re: Mark
Since the government owns the roads, they have every right to dictate the speed at which those who drive on them may travel. That said, the Germans had no speed limits on the Autobahns for decades.
Comment: #7
Posted by: J Wilson
Wed Apr 4, 2012 5:12 AM
Wow, Walter actually used my comment from a previous article. I didn't think the authors read them. Apparently they care about what kind of responses their articles generate.
Comment: #8
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Wed Apr 4, 2012 11:10 AM
Still, looking back at my actual comment he took the part of it that made it seem that I was against his article. I was actually trying to show my support for him and and called him awesome in a previous comment. Maybe we should be more carefull about what we say.
Comment: #9
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Wed Apr 4, 2012 5:41 PM
Chris McCoy, after reading your comments, I too looked back. I'd not worry he misunderstood your intent. Don't we all pick and choose which part of a particular comment or column we want to address? Your words, what you said, made a difference and were considered important enough by the esteemed Mr. Williams to mention in his column. That's important. It's a good thing to be recognized and to know that what we say has value. Congratulations.
Comment: #10
Posted by: Steve
Wed Apr 4, 2012 6:50 PM
What we say in our comments has value quite independent of Mr. Williams noticing or not. His opinions, sometimes well considered, other times not, are a good starting point. The power is in the discussion of the ideas.
Comment: #11
Posted by: Mark
Wed Apr 4, 2012 7:23 PM
Mark, to make your comment about power you choose to invalidate my comments to Chris McCoy. My experience and the sciences tell me we all yearn for recognition and if your knowledge of power leaves you unable to experience Chris McCoy's amazement her comment was recognized and distress that it may have been misunderstood, you are sadly lacking in empathy. I enjoy Chris McCoy, I like to read her comments and we have agreed and disagreed. It was a pleasure to find Mr. Williams did indeed use her statement and I was delighted for her. But like most who value power over people, you know nothing of what is true and good in people. As to discussion of ideas, I've heard yours, now you've heard mine. Discussion over.
Comment: #12
Posted by: Steve
Wed Apr 4, 2012 9:07 PM
Thanks Steve. And I'm a guy.
Comment: #13
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Thu Apr 5, 2012 7:00 AM
Mr. MCoy, I sent your response to my granddaughter, Christina, who even at the age of 24 insists we call her Chris, and she has sufficiently chastized me for leaping to such a conclusion. My apologies.
Again, I think it's great Mr. Williams used your comments. Your words sparked something in him to base another column around them and that's no small achievement. Don't let anyone tell you it's not.
Your comments caught my interest too, as they are different than my own but your logic and reasoning is usually sound and from time to time caused me to rethink some of my own positions.

Comment: #14
Posted by: Steve
Thu Apr 5, 2012 5:09 PM
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