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Artillery Row

In defence of the right to addictions

Paternalists should stop masquerading as defenders of liberty

In recent months, paternalists have decided to adopt the words of the liberal in defending the tobacco ban. According to the health minister who introduced the bill, Victoria Atkins, “nicotine robs people of their freedom to choose”, hence, getting rid of it will “give the next generation the freedom to live longer, healthier and more productive lives”. The strong implication is true liberals should favour the tobacco ban to ensure freedom. This is nonsense. Freedom and addiction are not mutually exclusive, and this is accepting the strong notion of the latter concept; disregarding the at best questionable application of it to the tobacco question. 

What is addiction? The dictionary definition of being addicted as being “physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance” will not do. We all need food, water, heat and shelter to survive, that is, we are entirely dependent on them; yet no sensible concept of addiction is going to say we are addicted to those (as the just mentioned definition would require of us). I think the NHS definition of it as the state of “not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you” is a great improvement. According to this definition free will is eliminated and instead the movements of the person are purely determined by physical, chemical and biological laws. 

Freedom is not constrained by physical laws, for example, the fact the law of gravity stops you from jumping to the Moon does not mean you are not free to do it, you are simply unable to do it. Similarly, an avalanche which due to the sheer weight of its moving snow determines every one of your movements when you are caught up in it does not diminish your freedom either. Were you to accept that it did the weather would implausibly diminish our freedom every day; the strong wind which stops us from walking upright would do so, the icy cold which makes us shiver would do so, and, so would the hot sun which makes us breathe at a different rate and perspire. Freedom is not diminished by physical laws frustrating our will. 

Just as being caught up in an avalanche and having all your movements physically determined by it does not make you unfree, then, being caught up in addiction and having all your movements physically determined by it does not make you unfree either. What this shows is freedom and addiction can exist together at the same time: Free will is not necessary for freedom. Contrary to Atkins who claims “there is no liberty in addiction”, true liberals can be firmly against the tobacco ban knowing there actually can be liberty in addiction, because liberty properly understood is not of Atkin’s false conception. Instead, freedom is simply the condition of having your rights to your person and property unviolated; only other people (such as Atkins) can diminish it. 

Maybe addiction doesn’t undermine freedom, but isn’t ensuring people have as much free will as possible to be aimed at? No. Where free will is understood as the person dictating his movements independent of physical, chemical and biological laws it is not something which should be maximised over time. Putting yourself into an induced coma for an operation and committing suicide reduces the expanse of free will and almost no one wants to ban those things for that reason, hence, no sensible person can be against smoking on the same basis either. Where someone could take a pill which would addict them to a very healthy diet and exercise, would that pill taking be impermissible too? According to proponents of free will maximisation it would. I think this is implausible. 

The addiction argument Atkin’s raises is really just there to placate libertarians in her own party

The real reason Atkins, Streeting and public health officials are for the tobacco ban is because they believe people should not be allowed to make bad choices. The addiction argument Atkins raises is really just there to placate libertarians in her own party, because, by making a point of tobacco being addictive, unlike say sugar and fatty foods, she can claim to ban the former on the grounds of maintaining free will, without having to commit to banning the latter. Indeed, of the three times Atkin’s mentions “freedom” or “liberty” it is always in the false sense I have outlined and in an attempted rebutting of libertarians. Throughout the rest of her speech though she is happy to put forward outright paternalism; meaning, the runaway train to banning all sorts of things cannot really be stopped by her own logic.

The proceeding has simply accepted cigarettes are addictive in the sense outlined and shown preserving freedom need not necessarily require protecting free will (meaning the liberal need not support the tobacco ban on the grounds of supporting freedom). Were tobacco addictive in the sense mentioned there would be contingent grounds for partially banning it though. For example, if people’s free will is genuinely eliminated by smoking then poor smokers who were addicted would be physically compelled to break into shops and other people’s houses to acquire it. Getting addicted as a poor person, then, would make you such a risk to others you could be pre-emptively stopped to preserve others’ freedom.

Obviously, though, the definition of addiction which motivates the aforementioned argument of Atkins (and is the NHS’s) is implausible. Most people say smokers are addicted to nicotine, but if they broke into shops or other people’s homes to steal it, those same people would blame them and want them punished. This is not a coherent position as blame presupposes the presence of free will which they deny in saying people are addicted. 

Clearly, prohibitionists need a different account of addiction to keep their anti-tobacco arguments plausible. It is at this point where the dubious notion of addiction arises as the condition of it being difficult to give something up. And it is here where any appeal to preserving free will and thus freedom itself (which I have already shown to be a false equivalence) must really flounder. For being in the condition of it being hard to give something up is obviously distinct to not having free will. The evidence that smoking can be given up is overwhelming. Indeed, 69 per cent of those who have ever smoked have now given up according to the Office for National Statistics. Smokers clearly have free will concerning quitting. Even cocaine addicts give up after an average of four years (despite their free will being allegedly destroyed). Perhaps the prohibitionists see eliminating this understanding of addiction as intrinsically valuable, which would still support banning tobacco. 

Eliminating this form of addiction is not going to get Atkins what she wants though, namely, the prohibition of tobacco alone, because all sorts of things according to this account are addictive, such as sugar, alcohol, fast food and coffee too. The NHS webpage on addiction even states people can get addicted to the internet, shopping and work. Following through on banning addiction would implausibly require banning all these things, or, at least banning them for the addicted. Plus, it would require banning good addictions too, such as to exercise, the study of the universe or socialising. Given I doubt Atkins has no issue with these latter addictions, it is clear she really just wants to stop people making bad choices, i.e. engage in outright paternalism. 

Along with Liberal Democrat MP Daisy Cooper, I suspect many will believe tobacco addiction causes such “excessive harm” it is permissible for the state to prohibit it. Overeating though will be claimed to not be harmful enough to ban. Let us imagine this is a sustainable position: It would still not support the tobacco ban. If the obese are permitted to reduce their lifespan by an average of nine years parity of reasoning dictates smokers should be allowed to consume a tobacco ration up to the point where they reduce their lifespan by an average of nine years too. Today smokers’ lose an average of thirteen years of life, or ten years according to the NHS, so the ration would be pretty close to what smokers consume currently. 

The real problem with Mrs Cooper’s position is it is incoherent though. If freedom can be restricted to stop the bad choice to smoke, analogously, freedom can be restricted to stop the bad choices of overeating and not exercising too. No paternalist thinker I have ever read has justified paternalism only when free choice is very bad. Indeed, Sarah Conly, a paternalist philosopher who has really thought about its ethics, has written: “there is no area of choice that is in principle off limits [to paternalist intervention]”. Ultimately, the moral reasons which undergird our individual rights to make bad choices on a small scale undergird our individual rights to make bad choices on a large scale as well. This is the moral truth Mrs Atkins was trying to get around by claiming the tobacco ban alone is warranted because it preserves freedom by ensuring free will. 

Clearly the whole idea of addiction in public debate is confused

Finally, prohibitionists will probably argue tobacco is too addictive warranting its banning. What is the justification for something being “too addictive” I ask: Again, I have heard no argument. This question cannot be brushed aside as having an obvious answer, after all, cigarettes have a similar elasticity of demand as ice cream, flowers and toothpicks and no one is proposing to ban those. And note that the definition of addiction we have been driven to “‘the condition of it being difficult to give something up”) ensures we can be said to be addicted to food, water and shelter as much as tobacco, after all, it is very hard to give up the former three. Is the state going to ban food, water and shelter next? Clearly the whole idea of addiction in public debate is confused. Given that the great harmfulness and addictive nature of smoking (and I have established its addictiveness does not undermine free will) are independently not enough to justify prohibition I doubt they are in combination either.  

Freedom and addiction are not mutually exclusive; even on the strong conception of addiction I have discussed, let alone on the weaker conception. Hence, contrary to Atkins’ claim, liberals need not favour the tobacco ban on the basis of preserving freedom. Nor should liberals favour the tobacco ban on the basis it will preserve free will, because, tobacco doesn’t actually undermine free will, and, nevertheless, free will shouldn’t be maximised anyway requiring, as it would, prohibiting induced comas for surgery and suicide too. No, liberals should see Atkins’ argument for what it really is; a terrible argument to appease libertarians in her party who rightly argue there is no getting off the runaway train of paternalism once boarded. Or, if I have overestimated Mrs Atkins’ strategic thought, as simply a terrible argument full stop.

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