B y J e f f S m i t h
IRONICALLY, FOR A people who founded their nation on self-reliance, spoiled self-pampering is destroying the industry (in the individual sense...hard work, that sort of Yankee virtue) and energy that built this country into the colossus of the 20th century. Ironically again, determined self-indulgence looks to be the last great act of American energetic industry. It takes a lot potato chips in front of the telly, lite beer and cigarettes for a nation to commit mass suicide, but we are proving equal to the task.
You may have noted in these past few months the preponderance of broadly philosophical essays I have penned for your edification, particularly those treating with Constitutional issues, more particularly the Bill of Rights and--owing to current personal enthusiasm--Second Amendment theory. Summer's a good time to gaze into the middle distance and contemplatively suck one's thumb: Newsmakers either split town or hole up, besides which I let my subscriptions to news sources lapse while I waited...and waited...to get wired into the Net.
Two themes I have woven through these discussions, like the bass line in a Bo Diddley song: First, every living thing is born free, as a gift from Nature, and only forfeits any part of that freedom under the direst need or most extreme duress; and second, this natural condition of self-determination carries with it the natural condition of total responsibility.
We here in the Colonies started out with the right ideas in mind, and a simple, direct understanding of both freedom and responsibility. We here in the United States of the waning days of what has been called The American Century have lost sight of both.
We tend to think in terms of our freedoms--though we confuse freedom with license to indulge ourselves, and have scant appreciation for freedoms we have little selfish interest in exercising. We likewise tend not to trouble our pretty little heads with responsibilities, preferring to be out like kids at recess, playing with our favorite freedoms and looking to foist the responsibilities onto some parental figure: Mom and Dad, the teacher, the principal, the dean, the boss, the government, and when, ultimately, all of the above are dead, gone, or unwilling to clean up after you, the lawyers.
Or the lottery. All you've got to do is pick six numbers and you're out from under all your burdens.
A perfect case in point in today's current events is this business President Clinton brought up last week about teenage smoking. On the face of it, the issue is idiot-simple and perfectly clear:
Cigarettes cause cancer. The nicotine in tobacco is an addictive drug. What possible basis could there be to debate something so sensible as the President's plan to ban vending machines where a tall three-year-old with correct change can buy a pack of Camels? How could anyone disagree with limits on tobacco ads and promotions near schools or at sporting events attractive to teenagers? I'll tell you the basis in one word:
Tobacco companies make tons of it. Not as much as they once did, but tons just the same. And tobacco farmers in key Southern states with powerful senators make money too, and make a fearsome political lobby. Which, when you think about it, is pretty weird.
How about we substitute marijuana for tobacco? Marijuana is a smokeable leaf, like tobacco. It is less addictive and carcinogenic than tobacco, somewhat more mind-altering on a short-term basis, but no more so than alcohol, another incapacitating-but-legal drug. Now imagine President Clinton says we should not allow marijuana to be sold by the pack in vending machines. Or advertised on billboards next to junior high schools. Or to sponsor sporting events.
Well, hell, we'd all say "Get 'em, Bill." Wouldn't we?
But what if, like the tobacco industry, the federal government spent billions in subsidizing or price-supporting the marijuana growers. What if their approval, their money, their votes and political clout, were actively courted by most of our national leaders?
We would find ourselves, to the very least, conflicted.
Ah, but you libertarians out there say smoking, whether weed or latakia, is a victimless offense. Wrong again. Not only does our government and our society spend billions underwriting the tobacco industry, we spend as much or more cleaning up or burying the health mess caused by tobacco use.
So here's what I'd do to make both sides happy and start public thinking down a path toward reason:
Tell the tobacco industry that we're getting off their backs. They can sell the smokes in vending machines, over the counter at the 7-Eleven wherever. And they can advertise where they like.
The Surgeon General's caveat stays on the packaging and as part of any advertising, but that's it. If farmers want to grow the stuff, they'll be eligible for financial aid as any other farmer is.
That's the carrot. The stick is we no longer shell out public money to clean up the mess. If you decide to smoke and get cancer, no public funds will be spent to save your health or your life. If you can persuade a private insurance company to cover your stupidity and bad habits, fine, but don't ask us taxpayers to bail you out.
And the same philosophy eventually would be applied across the board, to whatever personal choices you might make that affect your individual life and death:
You can do 'em, but you've got to buy your own ticket. In other words, you can be free as you wish, but you have to accept the responsibility for it.
Obviously this does not open the book on a clear, black-and-white text. Certain behaviors, habits, freedoms imply an element of risk. Hey, life itself carries the certainty of death. We as a nation, as a government, recognize the validity and common interest in providing certain services to any and all of us, without being too nit-picky about, Well if you hadn't decided to ride a bicycle for your aerobic health, you wouldn't have fallen off and broken your arm: Medicare claim denied.
But where clear proof exists that such and such behavior will lead to sickness and expensive decline toward death, the operative philosophy should be caveat emptor.
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