Tuesday 15 May 2012 7:36 pm

Why personal choice in smoking or sex is the only measure that matters

SAUDI law prevents women from revealing their body in public. This prohibition is intended to protect Saudis from the lustful impulses that the Saudi authorities believe would overwhelm men if they saw a woman’s forearm or ankle. Fornication must not be encouraged. Few people in Britain believe that fornication is something its voluntary participants need to be protected from. But many worry about other voluntary activities. For example, some believe that no one should smoke. And they seek to protect us by preventing us from seeing what they believe will rouse smoky desires. Cigarette advertising has been banned since 1997. Now the government plans to ban branded cigarette packets. It is consulting on a “plain packaging” policy, by which all producers’ packets would look the same. The only words and images allowed on cigarette packets will be health warnings and photos of cancerous throats, gangrenous feet and so on. Most who promote this prohibition consider themselves politically progressive. They would object to the Saudi law that requires women to cover themselves in public. Yet they differ from their Saudi counterparts only in what they believe to be bad for us. On the point of political principle, they are in perfect agreement. They think the authorities should dictate what we can show and see so as to prevent us from doing things they believe harm us. But perhaps this principle is fine, provided those who dictate what we see are wise. Perhaps the guardians of British welfare have acquired a degree of enlightenment that makes this power safe in their hands. Whereas the Saudi authorities are wrong – fornication is harmless and no uncontrollable passions are roused by the sight of an arm – our British guardians are right: smoking really is bad for you and branding really does cause it. Alas, no. Smoking and sex both have costs. Cigarettes cost about 40p each and can cause diseases. Sex also imperils your wallet and your health. Despite these costs, many people find the activities worthwhile, because they also have benefits. Some people enjoy smoking and many enjoy sex. If the upside of smoking or sex is worth more to someone than their costs, then he benefits from them. Since the authorities do not know how much upside people experience from an activity – be it smoking, fornicating or boxing – they cannot know if it is a net harm to them. Those self-appointed carers for the British people, who would protect us by dictating what we may see, really are no better than the religious police of Saudi Arabia. They conflate what is good for other people with how those other people would live if they shared the carers’ preferences. People possessed of such moral arrogance find it easy to believe they are helping us by depriving us of liberties. Jamie Whyte is a senior fellow of the Cobden Centre.

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