I have been recently re-introduced to John Stuart Mill and his ideas on Democracy and Liberty. In a system of Representative Democracy, which he favored, lurks the danger of the “tyranny of the majority”. Mill’s main way to avoid or at least alleviate this problem is by restricting the legitimate sphere of government activity. People have certain rights and liberties with which the government may not interfere. As he states in On Liberty :
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
I really like this general principle, as it is simple, clear, and to the point. Of course, as with so many things, the devil is in the details but these differ from case to case. The main objections come from those who do not agree with the outcomes of application of the priciple to matters of customary morality. Examples include those regarding suicide, euthanasia, abortion, homosexuality, prostitution, etc. Although in these cases major progress in the application of the principle has been achieved in most Western countries, there seems to remain a general willingness to discriminate against groups of people ‘for their own good’.
Just recently, during the Covid crisis, many health officials were willing to put much more strict limitations on the freedom of movement of the elderly than on the rest of the population, not because they were more of a threat to others but because they were more vulnerable to the effects of the disease. Nobody asked the elderly if they were willing to accept the higher risk in return for a better quality of life. No, just lock all of them up! Mill would turn around in his grave!
Another interesting example is the crusade against smoking. Now, there is no doubt that smoking is addictive and that it is bad for you. It is generally accepted that it cuts your life span by about 10 years. On the other hand, many people do enjoy it and arguably it does not do harm to others, except through second hand smoke. Some argue that it does do harm to society because of increased medical cost but when I was a student, it was explained to me that the high excise taxes on tobacco (and alcohol) were justified because they offset the associated ‘social costs’.
In fact, recent studies have confirmed that smoking is bad for the individual but good for society. This is because smokers are just as productive as non-smokers, the difference in medical cost between smokers and non-smokers is more than offset by the excise taxes, and society saves a bundle because smokers receive about 10 fewer years of social security and pension payments. In view of this fact the crusade makes even less sense.
Back to the original argument: The harm to others is limited to the effects of second hand smoke. Therefore, it is legitimate to prohibit smoking indoors in restaurants, bars, and other public spaces. But what is the objection against smoking clubs or well-ventilated smoking rooms in bars or event centers? Entrance into such areas is totally voluntary and the risks are accepted by the users. The damage to third parties of second hand smoke from smoking outside is so minimal that it cannot be established. What is the use of dirty pictures on packages of cigarettes? And how does chewing tobacco or snuff or electric cigarettes harm others? The measures against these products can only be justified with: It is for their own good.
The prohibition of other drugs, some fairly harmless, like marihuana and cocaine, some harmful, like heroin, also can only be justified on the ‘for their own good’ principle. The use of these drugs certainly causes social costs but it is beyond a shadow of a doubt true that the social and financial costs of the ‘war on drugs’ by far surpass the cost of education and/or treatment of the (potential) users. An additional disadvantage of the prohibition of drugs (or anything else) is that enables the growth of criminal organizations, which are happy to profit from supplying the product at a hefty premium. (All tax-free because it is illegal, thus leaving the social costs to the taxpayer.) The prohibition of alcohol in the USA stood at the birth of the Mafia.
The author would love to get reactions, especially counter arguments.