Liberty is seldom lost all at once

“It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once,” said the philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). This is indeed the case in South Africa where the legislative onslaught on products such as tobacco and liquor is rationalised on the basis that they are deleterious to the health of the people. The next likely targets are salt, red meat, sugar, and foods containing fats, especially so-called ‘junk’ food.

But we have nothing to fear because, although there is a whole list of products that have been proven to compromise our health, the Minister of Health is going to save us from ourselves.

The most concerning effect of this resolve by the Minister? It is that the already enacted pernicious measures that demonise tobacco and alcohol and all further contemplated policies undermine the liberties of consumers. A serious issue – perhaps even more so – for non-smokers and teetotallers. Government counts on the ignorance of those non-smokers and non-drinkers who cannot see how regulatory measures aimed at the tobacco and liquor industries erode their liberty, and, in time threatens the potential curtailment of freedom of choice in respect of other products or social habits.

Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, made the ultimate agenda of destroying the tobacco industry quite clear with the following statement, “We have not stopped in our regulation process and will not stop while people are still choosing to smoke.”

This is dangerous talk. If anything can be learnt from the Prohibition era (1920-1933) in America which prohibited the sale, production, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages, it is that demand cannot be quelled and regulatory measures put business into the hands of criminals. Al Capone and the mafia flourished as a consequence. When the US government conceded that even extreme legislative measures had proved counterproductive, they were repealed in toto.

Despite the readily available, patently clear, well-documented history of the Prohibition era, South Africa is embarking on its own ‘ignominious prohibition’ and pushing on with its mission to extinguish the tobacco industry, irrespective of the unintended but foreseeable effects.

An adage, policymakers should ponder is that “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it,” (George Santayana – The Life of Reason, 1905), because the same responses are unfolding in South Africa as in America. It has already been widely reported by law enforcement agencies here that huge amounts of illegally manufactured cigarettes are finding their way into the market. What is even more frightening is that nobody can be sure what ingredients go into cigarettes produced in the underground tobacco industry, some of which could be toxic.

Also to be borne in mind is that both the tobacco and the liquor industries are big. Across the value chain, from crop cultivation, the factories and various other enterprises that retail to the end consumer, hundreds of thousands of people are employed. Revenue accrues to the government as the legitimate industry pays taxes and consumers buy the product.

Government’s anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol legislative agenda treats the users of these products like children who do not have the intellectual capacity to appreciate the consequences of their actions and to choose whether to act or not to act on that basis, regardless.

Instead of a coercive, paternalistic approach, government should rather embark on an extensive educational campaign to alert people to the dangers of over-indulgence – perhaps, not only in smoking or imbibing alcohol, but also about the overconsumption of products such as sugar, salt, so-called junk food and dairy products to avert a total legislative onslaught on our freedom of choice.

The Dutch government has recently decided to relax restrictions on tobacco control because they consider smoking a matter of personal choice and not a governmental duty to force people to make healthy choices.

The WHO’s FCTC shadow report stated: “The present Dutch government sees tobacco control as the most patronising form of policymaking (and the Dutch government feels that it) should not be a nanny to its citizens.” The Dutch government even cut its funding of mass media educational campaigns for tobacco control completely in 2011.

In the words of Supreme Court Justice, Louis D Brandeis (1928), “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficial … the greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

Author: Temba A Nolutshungu is a director of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s.



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