Federal Tyranny Marches On

Last week U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno made good on President Clinton's State of the Union address threat to sue tobacco manufacturers to recover federal health care costs associated with cigarette smoking-related illnesses. This most recent attempt at extortion of cigarette manufacturers, and ultimately smokers, should raise all sorts of red flags.

Elites, both in and out of Washington, want to control our lives. Our acquiescence to their tobacco attack is laying the groundwork for much bolder actions in the future. Janet Reno said that tobacco manufacturers are to be held responsible for the federal costs of treating people with smoking-related diseases. Suppose we substitute the word obesity-related diseases for smoking-related diseases, then why not mount a similar attack on food manufacturers, restauranteurs, and the beer, wine and alcohol industries. Anti-cigarette zealots are not the nation's only lifestyle Nazis, there are other busybody organizations who will use the attack on smokers as a precedent for their agenda.

Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says about large food servings, "It's high time the [restaurant] industry begins to bear some responsibility for its contribution to obesity, heart disease and cancer." Dr. Ronald Griffiths, at Johns Hopkins University, concerned about coffee addiction says, "If health risks are well-documented, caffeine could be catapulted in public perception from a pleasant habit to a possibly harmful drug of abuse." Along with Michael Jacobson, he wants the FDA to regulate caffeine content in soda, coffee, tea and chocolate.

There's much more at stake than simply the matter of the government's suit against tobacco manufacturers. Attorney General Reno's actions represent another attack on our withering Constitution and the rule of law that stands between liberty and tyranny. "A government of laws and not of men" means that rules are known in advance and apply to rulers as well as the ruled. Liberty means that individuals are shielded from the whims of rulers as well as the whims of the majority. Majorities can be just as despotic as tyrants. After all Jim Crow laws reflected the will of the majority. In one sense despotic majorities are worse than a despotic tyrant because majority rule creates an aura of respectability. One might understand how a large percentage of Americans can come to despise 40 to 50 million of their fellow Americans who smoke. But surely these people, I would hope, don't also despise our Constitution and rule of law.

The tobacco controversy conclusively demonstrates the perils of socialism. We've gone a long way towards the socialization of our health care services. As such Medicaid and Medicare give government the "right" to tell us how to live our lives. After all the primary justification for intrusions such as seatbelt, air bag, and helmet mandates is that if we injure ourselves the government (taxpayers) will have to bear the costs. But where does it end? Exercise reduces health care costs; so do nutritious diets, eight hours sleep, moderate alcohol consumption and you name it. Will a day come when Washington makes us exercise; legislate diet mandates and require us to go to bed at a certain time? You say, "Williams, that's absurd!" Let's go back to the 50s when cigarette Nazis were demanding separate smoking sections on airplanes. Had anyone back then protested, predicting what we see today, he would have also been greeted with, "That's absurd!" Tyrants never take away liberties all at once. They do it bit by bit. Or, as the great philosopher David Hume said, "It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once."

Walter E. Williams
September 24, 1999
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