A precondition of freedom is the recognition of the individual’s capacity to make decisions for himself. If man were viewed as congenitally incapable of making rational choices, there would be no basis for the very concept of rights. Yet that is increasingly how our government views us. It is adopting the role of a paternalistic nanny, zealously protecting the citizen against his own actions. In the process, our freedom is disappearing.

Obvious examples of this attitude are laws mandating the use of automobile seat belts and motorcycle helmets. Gambling is another area in which the state believes it must keep the individual from harming himself, with the newest wrinkle being an attempt to stop the use of credit cards for Internet gambling. New York State, for example, has threatened to sue Citibank–one of the largest credit-card issuers–for “making profits off the financial hardships of compulsive gamblers.”

The most tenacious display of this enslaving paternalism is in the regulation of tobacco products. The government maintains that, despite widespread knowledge about the dangers of smoking, the sale of cigarettes must be curtailed. With this approach, the government is making two declarations. The first is that you are not responsible for your decisions, and that if you become impoverished through gambling losses or injured in a car accident or stricken by emphysema, society will take care of you. The second is that, as a consequence, you cannot be given the freedom to make those decisions in the first place–i.e., your freedom to use your credit card for gambling or to drive without a seat belt or to smoke cigarettes will be restricted. Once your life is deemed to be the responsibility of the state, you are no longer permitted to incur “social costs” by making undesirable choices.

Thus, the government tyrannizes the tobacco industry for having the audacity to make products that so many people willingly buy. In a forced settlement that supposedly compensates state governments for their health costs, manufacturers will hand over about $250 billion across 25 years. On each pack of cigarettes sold last year, the government’s total take was $1.54; the manufacturer’s profit was 10 cents. To further prevent people from electing to smoke, it is illegal to sell fewer than 20 cigarettes per pack, to dispense free samples or to award gifts to frequent buyers of cigarettes.

Then there are the pervasive restrictions on freedom of speech. To keep its infantile citizens from being persuaded to harm themselves, the government forbids cigarette ads on billboards and tobacco-company logos on tee shirts. Industry advocacy groups, like the Council for Tobacco Research, have been disbanded; only “disinterested” parties–which the tobacco industry is required to help finance–are now allowed to state their opinions about tobacco. To compound the injustice, the industry had to characterize the forced settlement as “voluntary” and had to waive its right to invoke any First Amendment protections.

It is a rationalization to describe these measures as necessary to safeguard children. While the sale of cigarettes to minors is justifiably prohibited, it is the free choice of consenting adults that is being controlled. And if it is proper to use preventive law to stop adults from buying cigarettes for fear that children too may buy them and be harmed by them, to what area of life would such reasoning not apply?

Indeed, one such new area is the food industry, which is now being blamed for the “disease” of obesity. There are proposals for special taxes on “junk food.” Some public school districts have banned the sale of candy and soda on their premises. And a George Washington University law professor, who pioneered the lawsuits against the tobacco industry, says: “You could have states saying that they have this billion-dollar public health problem, and food companies are responsible for a certain percentage of it. It’s a reach, I admit. But they said the same thing about tobacco lawsuits ten years ago.”

The paternalistic “food police” will thus keep people from buying cupcakes so that no one imposes upon the public the “social cost” of extra poundage.

Instead of being morally outraged at this appalling violation of rights, the food industry–like the tobacco industry before it–is appeasing its attackers. Coca-Cola, for example, is giving schools exercise pedometers to show how social-minded it is about obesity. The Wall St. Journal writes that food companies “are contemplating advertisements that would discourage consumers from overeating their products.” What’s next? Ads to discourage water-drinkers from swallowing too quickly? Banana buyers from eating before peeling?

The ads that should be run by these companies are ones defending their right to produce the goods that people voluntarily pay for–and the right of each individual to decide for himself how to conduct his life.

— Mr. Schwartz, editor and contributing author of “Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution” by Ayn Rand, is chairman of the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. If you want to read more editorials produced by the Ayn Rand Institute go to http://www.aynrand.org/medialink/

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Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz, author of The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest, is a distinguished fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand--author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead

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