Missed Opportunity

Darn. I did it again. I saw this one coming, too, and I didn’t even think about it until it passed me by. I speak, sadly, of the Florida ban on smoking in bars. I could have become a consultant.

I was living in the mountains of Northern California when this particularly noxious and invasive notion leaked out of Hollywood salons, where the latest film horrors and atrocities are vetted for illiterate adolescents, and leaked into the brains of the venial mediocrities in the Sacramento legislature. Somebody decided to make life a little more miserable for the working stiff who might be having fun in a bar instead of resting up to work harder for his tax-receiving brethren, who were also having fun in the same bar, and that decided the issue. No more fun.

They didn’t put it that way, of course. Honesty is not even a last resort in politics; it simply doesn’t exist. The spin revolved around the junk science claims about second-hand smoke, and the State’s self-proclaimed mission to protect workers from their environment. This legislation singled out bartenders and barmaids as those requiring its protection, as long as they were employees, and not owners. Owners pay, but they don’t count.

When I read about that in the newspaper, I decided to do a local survey. There were thirteen bars on the one and only main street in town and I happened to know all of the owners, the bartenders, and the barmaids. I wanted to find out for sure how many of them did not smoke. I found one. One of the owners. He chewed. The rest smoked. Now I admit that this main street was not a glittering avenue in Hollywood, the town’s population consisted of blue-collar workers, welfare recipients, and retired senior citizens, but I still think my survey represented a fair reality check on the propaganda out of Sacramento. It was bunk.

If the bartender and the barmaid were also the owners of the bar, however, then the law did not apply. Only one of the bars in town qualified, and this created a problem for all. During the winter months, the regular patrons of each bar formed teams to compete in shooting pool, throwing darts, and playing shuffleboard. All of the owners would get together in advance to make out tournament schedules that would benefit the revenue of each bar fairly, because these contests always included a potluck dinner and a wall-to-wall crowd. But if nobody could smoke, then what? The teams would all want to compete in the one bar in town where they could smoke in peace. The others cried foul, but there was nothing they could do. Tournament games died out, and a certain sense of friendliness and sociability was lost to the whole community.

The State’s hypocritical anti-smoking posture is personal harassment, pure and simple, and nothing else. The State could shut down the tobacco industry in a minute, if it could afford the consequences. But no, the State prefers to act tough, push people around, and collect its taxes, except in drugs, where it’s a smaller market and more lucrative for the State underground.

If there were a real population who demanded non-smoking restaurants and bars, then we would have had an abundance of non-smoking restaurants and bars — without the law. Such a population does not exist. A popular beer bar in a California college town that became a non-smoking bar before the law was introduced went bankrupt for its ideology.

Bankruptcy is exactly what these small, private businesses face if they comply with the spirit of the law, so to survive they must exploit loopholes, and there are always loopholes, that’s what makes "good" legislation. So the bar owner needs to hire a consultant, preferably a lawyer (that leaves me out), who can find and use the loopholes. A tricky one in Florida depends on how much food is served in the bar. Under a certain amount, his patrons can smoke in his bar; over a certain amount, they can’t. Nobody seems to be real sure about the critical amount yet, the law in Florida is still at the trial and error stage, and there’s still a lot of huffing and puffing going on about it.

Legislated laws are seldom absolute commands, and often they are only "flyers" to see how much interference people will tolerate. The oxymoron dubbed the Patriot Act was one such flyer that got away with quite a lot while the population was distracted. Its follow-up, Patriot II, leaked in advance, isn’t flying at all, and the Stalinist TIP program crashed the day it was proposed. People will reject attacks on their liberty if they see them coming soon enough, and if they understand what they mean in the long run.

The bar and restaurant owners in California, Florida, and New York City could have shot this smoking flyer down before it got off the ground if they had taken a principled stand against it from the beginning. They didn’t. They could still defeat it with universal non-compliance. They won’t. The idea that the State has the right to dictate personal preferences has been thoroughly implanted by public education, and there’s no stopping it now.

I’m no good at compromise, so I guess I would have made a lousy consultant, after all. But as a sovereign consumer I can still have my own say in the matter. When I see a no-smoking sign posted in a bar or a restaurant, I’ll leave. The State can have its law, and I’ll keep my money, and if I get tired of that after a while, I’ll move to a place where smoking is legal in bars. I’ve done it before.

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts