Treating Adults like Children
New Zealand recently passed a law permanently prohibiting the sale of tobacco to anyone born on or after January 1, 2009. That’s right. If you’re unlucky enough to have been born on or after that date, it will forever be illegal for you to smoke a cigar on a celebratory occasion or to savor a pipe on a dewy summer evening.
The new law is part of a growing trend in the Western world toward treating adults like children. Even as governments experiment with lowering the voting age to 16, they are raising the age at which we may marry, work, have sex, own a gun, drink alcohol, and yes, smoke. The logic seems to be that young adults are rational enough to make decisions about everyone else’s lives but not their own.
New Zealand’s law doesn’t just raise the smoking age, it completely bans tobacco purchases for anyone after a certain generation. Ironically, New Zealand has legalized medical weed and narrowly rejected legalizing recreational weed. California’s considering similar legislation to ban tobacco completely, even though they, too, have created a legal status for weed.
We apparently haven’t learned the lessons of prohibition after all, notwithstanding the global trend toward legalizing marijuana. Our culture still lacks any consistent understanding that sane, adult human beings need to be free to live their lives as long as they aren’t harming others. To the contrary, politicians just seem to be rewarding groups they like and punishing groups they don’t. Smokers are more blue-collar, less white, less college-educated, and probably have suspicious conservative leanings – they’re an easy target for politicians.
Now, you can make a case for discouraging adult use of substances that permanently undermine the capacity for rational decision-making. But it’s absurd to say that tobacco use can play no part in someone’s reasonable conception of a good life. I occasionally smoke a pipe in summertime; it’s a contemplative and relaxing activity. I smoke infrequently enough that I have never been addicted, and the medical literature has found that the risks of pipe smoke, which is not inhaled, at that frequency are so small as to be unmeasurable. Justifying a total ban on tobacco based on health risks is unscientific, to say nothing of its attack on human dignity.
When the government treats adults like children, when they criminalize our pursuit of happiness, what does that do to us? Does our power of choosing for ourselves, of weighing risks and benefits, of exercising independent judgment, begin to atrophy?
John Stuart Mill thought so. In his famous book On Liberty, the English philosopher defended freedom of “experiments in living.” He contended that human progress came from thinking, discussing, and testing new thoughts. Without the ability to act on our ideas – with the critical proviso that we do so at our own expense and without violating others’ rights – we would lack the ability to test those ideas and see which ones work.
Mill fell into a few inconsistencies of his own, but his basic contention that the human mind grows and thrives when it is not confined to a single, homogeneous plan of life seems indisputable. That freedom to toy with ideas and learn from experience is now under threat.
In the 2020s, even thinking or talking about a politically incorrect behavior or opinion is often dangerous to our careers and social standing. As more private lifestyle choices become unlawful, will we even lose the ability to think through our own choices – and the value we place on physical health, narrowly defined, versus happiness in the broader sense? Will the new wars on drugs, sex, guns, and more become a war on our minds?
With the ubiquity of social media and the growing role of artificial intelligence in collating data from across the Internet, the push to ban eccentric and unpopular lifestyle choices could exacerbate the growing trend of denying people access to web hosting, financial services, and employment. Now more than ever, those of us who simply want to be able to think new thoughts and try new things must defend the rights of those whose lifestyles we may not wish to copy. Treat adults like… adults.