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The Capricious State

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A little noted passage in President Clinton’s State of the Union speech offered a stark clue about the hypocrisy of politics.

In announcing that his administration would sue the tobacco companies to recover money Medicare has spent on treatments for smoking-related illnesses, Mr. Clinton said, “Now, I ask this Congress to resist the tobacco lobby, to reaffirm the FDA’s authority to protect our children from tobacco and to hold tobacco companies accountable, while protecting tobacco farmers.”

“While protecting tobacco farmers”? Does that strike anyone as odd? To hear Mr. Clinton and his allies tell it, the tobacco companies are Darth Vader in corporate form. They hook and ultimately kill us and our children. No penalty for them is unjust or too extreme.

But the farmers who grow the crop from which the deadly product is made in the first place- they will be protected. From what exactly? From the government’s iron fist and the loss of special favors.

Does anyone else find this laughable?

For the record, let me say that the only people liable for the consequences of smoking are the smokers themselves. No one is forced to smoke. People have been aware of it dangers at least since 1607, when James I pronounced tobacco “noxious to the lung.” Everyone knows the risks. In fact, people overestimate the risks of getting smoking-related diseases. And smokers quit all the time.

Juries have understood this and have consistently refused to side with plaintiffs. State governments were able to force a settlement out of court only by changing the rules and stripping the companies of their ability to defend themselves.

Thus, the legal vendetta against the tobacco companies is illegitimate. Nevertheless, it is naked hypocrisy and rank politics for champions of the vendetta to carve out an exception for tobacco farmers. However you view Phillip Morris et al., there is no way they can make cigarettes if no one grows tobacco. What kind of liability case can ignore the growers?

I’d hate to think that it might have something to do with campaign contributions and votes for Democrats. But I can’t think of an alternative explanation. Mr. Clinton used the word “protect” twice while excoriating the tobacco companies: once for children and once for tobacco farmers. It’s difficult to avoid cynicism.

We live in an unfortunate time when people blame others for their problems. It’s a simple matter for opportunistic politicians and interest groups to make hay out of that phenomenon. So state governments sue the tobacco companies to recover money Medicaid spent on medical care-despite the fact that the money will come mostly from low-income smokers and that everybody eventually dies of something. (Smokers in fact save “society” medical expenses.) Next, Medicare will file its own lawsuit. Now there’s talk about suits against gun manufacturers for damage done with their products. I suppose that before long someone will be calling for suits against auto makers because their cars hurt and kill people. Then what? Meat packers (though not cattlemen) because of heart disease?

The lesson in all this is how corrupting politics is when government has the power to do almost anything it wants to do. When government is unbounded, rights and traditional legal rules can be erased without notice and activities that were perfectly legitimate one day can become punishable the next. But to protect their loyalists, political leaders make exceptions at their whim. This is nothing less than an assault on the rule of law and its foundation: private property and individual liberty. The rule of law was supposed to provide some certainty about each person’s zone of freedom. These days it’s hard to know what might get you into legal trouble. Today they may be going after hated companies with deep pockets. Tomorrow the target may be an activity you are involved in. It all depends on who’s in office and which way the winds of political fashion are blowing.

That is not what the Founders had in mind.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.