Conservatives Without Conservatism

Individual rights up in smoke in Italy

Mr. Kopel, of the Independence Institute, & Carlo Stagnaro

National Review Online, February 8, 2001 1:35 p.m.

Also by Kopel: Tune Out, Light Up. In terms of destroying years of life, television is far worse than tobacco. National Review Online. May 29, 2000. In italiano.

Most surveys show the right-wing alliance will win the next elections in Italy. After six years with the leftist Olive Tree Coalition in power, this is supposed to be good news. While the current majority has increased national taxes and regulation, their opponents are supposed to stand for limited government, devolution and individual liberty. Unfortunately, this seems not to be true, at least with regard to health policy.

Professor Umberto Veronesi is the present minister of health in the leftist government. Recently he has spoken out against drug prohibition, pointing out that it doesn't work. In America, drug-war critics tend to come from two different camps: people who like free markets (like New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson) and those who don' t (like Ralph Nader). Mr. Veronesi is in the latter group.

The latter group are statists who happen to admit that a particular exercise of state power (prohibition) isn't working. To replace that failed use of state power, they propose simply a different use of state power. So they say that an addict is a "social problem"; drugs are some kind of "social disease", and that "society" as a whole must therefore provide a cure. In other words, they ask the government for national plans granting an addict as much of a drug as he needs to gradually quit his habit.

Thus, the addict keeps his hands in every taxpayer's pocket. Instead of paying a lot of money to keep in prison, the taxpayers pay a smaller, declining amount of money to buy him drugs for a while. That's progress. What happened to the idea that people who indulge in vices should just bear the consequences of their actions, and that taxpayers who don't indulge in the vice shouldn't have to spend any money for someone else's vice?

But whatever you think about that issue, it isn't the main topic of this article.

You might think that Health Minister Veronesi is pretty smart (or at least willing to state the obvious) for acknowledging that prohibition is a failure. Yet Signor Veronesi is also the author of the first extreme anti-smoking-law proposal in Italy.

Before he gained his office, smoking was forbidden in some "public places" such as schools and hospitals. After his actions, smoking is absolutely banned from almost every place you go, except your own house — including bars, restaurants and discos. Mr. Veronesi says smoking causes cancer and, even worse, it is dangerous, maybe mortal, even for those who don't smoke.

Umberto Veronesi is a famous oncologist, so he certainly knows there is no scientific evidence on the carcinogenicity of second-hand smoke. He should not promote passage of a law which claims to defend people's health, while having no scientific basis.

Since the polls show the right-wing coalition, named "Casa delle Liberta," with a large advantage over its opponents, one might hope for the beginning of a new era, more tolerant of individual rights and property rights, even for smokers. But rumor has it that Mr. Veronesi could be a member of the next government if the Casa delle Liberta wins. Since no one among the conservatives has denied this, we will likely have the same person in the same office, even if the left has nurtured him until now.

So unless the former (so they say) communists win an election upset, the upcoming election is a lose-lose proposition for smokers.

Smoking is not as harmful as junk science claims, either for smokers nor for non-smokers. But the core question is: does everyone have the right to pursue happiness in his own way? If so, we must admit many people feel happy while smoking a cigarette. If one believes in the principles which animated the American Declaration of Independence, one can't support a prohibition policy.

So the problem of the Italian right-wingers is that they are a bunch of conservatives without conservatism. Although they abjure overt fascism, there is no robust conservative resilience, no antibodies against health fascism.

If they really want to defend individual rights to life, liberty, and property, conservatives in Italy and elsewhere should rather guarantee every citizen the right to do whatever she wants with her own body and property. It implies the right of every owner of a publicly accessible place to decide if smokers are admitted or not. This would also force the conservatives not to give Umberto Veronesi an appointment in the next government.

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