A plain pack of lies


BBC News tells us that: “A law introducing plain cigarette packaging in England and Wales could come into force in 2016 after ministers said MPs would be asked to vote on the plan before May's general election.” We really are seeing the thin end of the wedge here as yet another misjudged interference in the free market looks set to take place. The confusion that people like Public Health Minister Jane Ellison harbour is that they only seem to think of smoking in terms of bodily damage. Yes, if you only want to think about smoking in terms of the effects of physical degeneration on body parts, then cigarettes are a terrible thing, and plain packaging can be argued for on those (albeit flimsy) grounds. But only a fool would do that. Jane Ellison is presumably aware that many people still smoke even though they have full knowledge of how bad cigarettes are for them. With this knowledge she ought to have a clue that there is a reason people smoke in spite of knowledge of its degenerative effects – they enjoy doing it. Clearly people who voluntarily hand over money to buy and smoke cigarettes have accounted for cigarettes being bad for your health, but have still concluded that the positive effects of smoking outweigh those negatives. Ben Southwood's blog on smoking is particularly appropriate here.

Contrary to the 'plain packaging' lobby's misapprehension, it is trivially obvious, that smoking is only entirely bad for you if you forget all the reasons that it is good for you. The trouble with going down this road is that if you consider only the costs, then just about everything is bad for you. Take drinking water. By only counting the costs you'd find drinking water is a pretty disagreeable action - it brings about increased urination, it causes time lost in the toilet, it engenders increased chlorine levels in your stomach, and it causes gradual damage to your detrusor muscle in the bladder. Drinking water - one of the most innocuous activities we can undertake - has risks and it has costs, but no one thinks it's bad for you in net terms. Quite the contrary, in places where water is scarce we do all we can to make it plentiful.

Governments interfere too much by focusing only on costs and ignoring benefits. It’s unsurprising that people like Jane Ellison want to trespass into other people’s free choices so much – she’s only aspiring to do what the state does on a frequent basis.  This is the simple and straightforward reason why I'm a libertarian, and why I hold the view that a small government is best. People know how to run their lives better than any government. That's not a blanket truism, but it's true for the vast majority of people, and it's true in the majority of ways that relate to how we live our lives by making cost-benefit analyses and exercise our freedom of choice. Politicians are quick to interfere or ban things that have costs, which often involves failing to appreciate that humans can decide for themselves whether those costs are worth paying.

Because it is impossible for the state to know how much every individual values health, exercise, weight training, smoking, alcohol, and so forth, it is impossible for the government to know better than its citizens what is good for them. A good government would understand this, and seek to minimise its involvement in our lives to enhance our welfare and liberty, as the quality of welfare and the benefits of liberty are synchronised to enable people to voluntarily undertake the activities they prefer.