A lesson about tobacco harm reduction from the American Tea Party movement

A column a couple of days ago by David Brooks (who, just for the record, I usually do not agree with) noted several threads of analysis that liken the American “Tea Party” movement to what he calls the New Left – the late-1960s / early-1970s Anglo-American hippie political movement. Despite the superficial differences that inevitably provoke a strong objection to the comparison from the current left, both of these are individualistic and anti-establishment. Both are probably doomed to flash and fail because counter-establishment efforts can build something for the ages, but anti-establishment is ephemeral — but that is not the part that is relevant to this blog.

What is relevant is the invocation of the classic high school civics story (admittedly oversimplified) of Rousseau’s vision of authority chaining the people versus Hobbes’s vision of authority being needed to protect people from anarchy and their own preference for sinning. This goes a long way to explaining something that many people find confusing: Why is the compassionate, liberal, and humanistic endeavor that is tobacco harm reduction so violently opposed by those who are thought of as the “left” (government bureaucracy; self-appointed guardians of the public health; the New York Times, which recently contributed to killing nicotine users by telling them they might as well smoke) even though the left is usually considered liberal and compassionate, but supported more by the “right” (Canada’s National Post and the U.S.’s Washington Times and Rep. Steve Buyer)?

The answer lies in recognizing that the left-right spectrum defined by ownership of the means of production (and related tax and welfare policy) or tendency toward foreign adventures is almost orthogonal to the Rousseau-Hobbes spectrum of liberty vs. paternalism. Deep ethical thinkers on both the left and right generally support enlightened drug policies, including encouraging harm reduction. Unfortunately, the institutional right still sees most illicit drugs as a crime or sin, and the institutional left similarly objects to tobacco/nicotine, soda, and the like. The latter mostly talk themselves into believing that they are attacking the corporations that supply the products, not the freedom to make our own decisions about our brains and bodies, but this is a transparent rationalization that does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.

Thus, the institutional left and right are quite happy to collaborate, via law and propaganda, in making sure that Leviathan keeps we ignorant masses from sinning by indulging a bit. And, of course, like every other government action, they dress it up as being for our own good.

Maybe it is time to create a Snus Party movement. Arguably the e-cig supporters and devotees are coming very close to this via the online community.

–Carl V. Phillips

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