Thursday, November 9, 2006

79. Democracy is tyranny, too

I must admit that I have some compassion for smokers. Although I have vehemently argued against the cigarette companies for their acts of irresponsible marketing and I find it remarkable that this dangerously unhealthy product endures such viability in our culture, I understand on an individual level that smoking is an addiction.

Voters this November were afforded the opportunity to remove smoking from all public places- an issue that easily passed. Certainly, from a health perspective, this was an easy decision. The decision was made easier by the somewhat underhanded attempt by the cigarette companies to add an amendment to the state constitution preserving the right to smoke is several venues. But I do have apprehension regarding the process, most notably, the use of majority rule to pass legislation and ratify constitutional amendments.

I have considerable concern for the use of the state constitution and Ohio voters in addressing these types of social issues. I believe that amendments to the state constitution should be reserved for the most creditable of social conditions. Ohio voters recall in 2004 when it was used to amend the constitution prohibiting gay marriage- something that was already illegal under Ohio law. This year an amendment was added raising the minimum wage. I agree wholeheartedly with the raising of the minimum wage, but I do not think that it should have been an amendment to the state constitution.

While smoking is not a civil right issue to the same degree as gay marriage; the tyranny of the majority, as I have written before, is capable of trampling the rights and privileges of others. If we are going to engage in using the Ohio constitution to accommodate the wishes of the majority, one has to be concerned at what point they, themselves, will be on the outside looking in. Certainly, smokers that voted against gay marriage now recognize the consequences of majority rule. Conceivably, there is an endless list of demographics that can be sorted through a democratic vote, such as making English the only acceptable language and defining ourselves as a Christian nation.

This issue is further exemplified in Cuyahoga County where voters turned out to support a tax on cigarettes to fund arts and culture. What does smoking have to do with art and culture, and what limit is there on taxing any activity that is performed by a minority of the population for the benefit of the majority? Why not tax the purchase of bubble gum? Taxes are usually levied on "sins," such as cigarettes and alcohol or luxury items- both which separate a minority from a majority who would rather have someone else support their endeavors.

The Sun Newspaper endorsed the issue, noting "...we're giving the nod to county Issue 18, an excise tax of 1.5 cents per cigarette for the sole reason that we are convinced a strong arts and culture community can only help spur badly needed economic development, attract businesses by raising the quality of life and avoid the stigma of being a city that doesn't support the arts."

The Plain Dealer also endorsed the issue, while admitting, "...we agree: This particular tax is not ideal, especially since it forces a shrinking minority to pick up the tab for supporting the arts."

There are two points to these endorsements; the first is my assertion that the majority is forcing a tax onto a minority population. The second is to ask why the entire community cannot be taxed to support art and culture- considering its benefit. The answer to my second point is that they tried, but in 2004 the county voted against a property tax proposal to finance art and economic developments. It seems that it is only a good idea when someone else pays for it. I also cannot resist the proposition that this tax is levied "per cigarette," as an unfair ploy to make the tax feel painless.

People will almost always vote in their best interest rather than on the principle of what is right or wrong. For example, how many smokers voted to ban smoking in public places? How many considered the effects of second hand smoke and made the rational decision to vote against their own interest? I would guess not many. And how many non-smokers voters decided against breathing fresh air or increasing the tax on cigarettes? Again, I would guess not many.

This idea of the tyranny of the majority was explored by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy of America. He boldly states that if people are given power through equality, they will have a tendency to become weak through their dependency on the rule of the majority. He further comments, "I know of no country in which, generally speaking, there is less independence of mind, and true freedom of discussion, than in America."

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