The Nation's Pulse

Serfdom by a Thousand Cuts

We may complain endlessly about them but, in a democracy, we get the laws we deserve.

By 2.21.08

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If it is indeed true, as George Bernard Shaw commented, that democracy ensures we get the government we deserve, then I have little sympathy for my neighbors who whine about the smoking ban as they puff their Camel filters in the parking lot outside the bowling alley in the freezing February rain.

Besides -- I like to point out -- we voted for the shysters and party hacks who passed the ban. Or -- more likely -- we failed to vote at all. I then call attention to the fact that right next door in Missouri, where the Republican Party still has a detectible pulse, there are no such bans. And none planned. "Well hell, let's go to Missouri and smoke!" the smokers roar, piling into their pickups, as the rain falls on an empty parking lot.

And yet the smokers are not without hope. Less than a year after Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the smoking ban, and gushed, "This law will save lives. The realities are that smoking kills people...My only regret is that this took so long," the news out of Springfield is that the owners of taverns, casinos and strip clubs may soon be able to buy a "special license" that will allow their patrons to smoke inside.

So all of that talk about saving lives from second-hand smoke was all just a bunch of...second-hand smoke. Or was it just another Chicago-style scam so the state could sell expensive smoking licenses to bowling alley operators? The fact is officeholders thought the smoking ban was a terrific idea -- or at least an efficient way to get those annoying single-issue pressure groupees out of their offices and off their backs -- until they discovered that Illinois would have a budget shortfall of $750 million next year, and learned how much tax revenue the state made off its smokers, boozers, gamblers and stripshow devotees.

Illinois bar owners report that revenue is down in some cases by 50 percent. Casinos report that the ban has caused a 17 percent drop in gaming. I haven't spoken to any strippers recently, but I bet they are feeling the pinch too.

Anyway the fish down at the bowling alley don't give a fig if their elected officials are hypocrites. To them, the terms politician and hypocrite have become synonymous. All they care about is that their local publican purchases one of them new smoking licenses so that they can come in from the cold.

Whether bar owners purchase special licenses will depend, I suppose, on how much the special licenses go for. Many adult entertainment venues and casinos are owned by multi-billion dollar gaming and adult entertainment corporations. They can easily afford to purchase a truckload of special licenses. Your mom and pop saloon owner, however, may find the cost a bit a bit more painful to bear.

ALL OF THIS IGNORES the bigger picture. A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch story quoted the manager of a southern Illinois VFW Post complaining about the ban: "Are you going to tell those guys who defended your country that they can't smoke?" he said pointing to men in VFW hats. "They fought for those freedoms."

Well, why not? The state is already hassling innocent motorists at sobriety and seatbelt checkpoints. Sobriety checkpoints nab few drunk drivers, but they do enrich the municipality's coffers as officers hand out hundreds of citations for petty offenses, like failure to wear a seatbelt. (National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration figures show that the largest reduction in alcohol-related traffic deaths occur in state's that do not use sobriety checkpoints.) And when elected officials aren't busy with the now annual drive to lower blood alcohol limits (until a single swig of lager makes one "legally drunk"), they are making it easier for police to watch your every move via ubiquitous traffic cameras. Sorry, but I didn't hear the Veterans of Foreign Wars squealing about those infringements of their rights.

These aren't the quaint, looney laws that you read about on the comics page. ("A Kirkland, Illinois, law forbids bees to fly over the village or through any of its streets.") Instead these laws create new classes of criminal behaviors; conduct that only yesterday was perfectly legal. Cynically the state assumes that, with time, the masses will get used to fewer rights, and to an ever-expanding, ever-meddling nanny state. All is well as long we are stripped of our rights gradually and imperceptibly.

Earlier this week Eric Peters wrote this in regards to mandatory seatbelt laws, "Since it's probably a losing battle to fight this creeping nannyism head on, one must adopt guerrilla tactics of evasion and obfuscation to assert one's right to make decisions about personal matters for oneself."

I was struck by how much this sounded like life under the old Soviet regime. You couldn't fight the Reds, so you did little things that made you feel like you still had some control over your life. You cracked jokes about the regime in the privacy of your home, hoping the walls weren't bugged, or your friends wouldn't rat you out.

Yes, it is pitiful. But that is what we've come to.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.