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A small victory for freedom and common sense, though for the wrong reasons:

A court in Breda, Netherlands has overturned the smoking ban the government imposed last summer. The judge ruled that the ban violates Article One of the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The judge argues that the ban disproportionately affects the owners of small establishments with no additional staff.

The correct reason why the smoking ban is doubly absurd is that it targets private, not public places and in particular ones where most customers come specifically for smoking. The fact that passive smoking can lead to cancer is quite irrelevant here because no one is forcing a non-smoker to go to these places. 

A similar law in the US, for instance, would immediately ban most hookah bars. I would think anyone would see the underlying absurdity and inherent dangers immediately but apparently that is not the case.

I am also surprised — as when I read the linked comment above — at most people’s amazing lack of understanding of the basic libertarian principles and their propensity to attribute positions to their opponents that they do not hold. (For the uninitiated, this is usually referred to as a strawman argument)

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Go, suck an egg

From a West Virginia legislator comes this bizarre proposal of banning Barbie dolls because they send the wrong message to young girls etc.

I think the Kardashian sisters’ response is the best. From the Fox story:

“He can suck an egg, seriously. He’s probably butt-ugly and always wanted a girlfriend that looked like Barbie but could never get one. People like that really annoy me,” Khloe Kardashian said, with her sis Kourtney adding that it was “so ridiculous.”

“She’s been around 50 years and girls love her. Its fun, it’s a doll — get over it people,” Kourtney added.

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In this excellent piece, security guru Bruce Schneier comments on efforts by the Indian government to ban Google Earth in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks.

Let’s all stop and take a deep breath. By its very nature, communications infrastructure is general. It can be used to plan both legal and illegal activities, and it’s generally impossible to tell which is which. When I send and receive email, it looks exactly the same as a terrorist doing the same thing. To the mobile phone network, a call from one terrorist to another looks exactly the same as a mobile phone call from one victim to another. Any attempt to ban or limit infrastructure affects everybody. If India bans Google Earth, a future terrorist won’t be able to use it to plan; nor will anybody else. Open Wi-Fi networks are useful for many reasons, the large majority of them positive, and closing them down affects all those reasons. Terrorist attacks are very rare, and it is almost always a bad trade-off to deny society the benefits of a communications technology just because the bad guys might use it too.

Communications infrastructure is especially valuable during a terrorist attack. Twitter was the best way for people to get real-time information about the attacks in Mumbai. If the Indian government shut Twitter down – or London blocked mobile phone coverage – during a terrorist attack, the lack of communications for everyone, not just the terrorists, would increase the level of terror and could even increase the body count. Information lessens fear and makes people safer.

[…] Criminals have used telephones and mobile phones since they were invented. Drug smugglers use airplanes and boats, radios and satellite phones. Bank robbers have long used cars and motorcycles as getaway vehicles, and horses before then. I haven’t seen it talked about yet, but the Mumbai terrorists used boats as well. They also wore boots. They ate lunch at restaurants, drank bottled water, and breathed the air. Society survives all of this because the good uses of infrastructure far outweigh the bad uses, even though the good uses are – by and large – small and pedestrian and the bad uses are rare and spectacular. And while terrorism turns society’s very infrastructure against itself, we only harm ourselves by dismantling that infrastructure in response – just as we would if we banned cars because bank robbers used them too.

I made a related point last month in my reaction to the same news.

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A fortune teller in Montgomery county went to court to try and overturn a local ban on fortune telling. The fortune teller claimed his free speech rights were being hindered. The county claimed they were justified in having a law to prevent fraud.  The county won, as you might have expected (unlike in movies, the little guy usually loses in real life).

This case might seem like an intellectual riddle to some. Should we stop fraud or uphold free-speech? However, it really is quite simple. There is a fundamental difference between fortune telling and actual fraud. A guy who purports to sell milk but gives you coloured water (I believe this used to be common in India) or a pharmacist who sells you a different drug from the one you asked for is giving you something that you did not want and did not pay for. More precisely, the customer in those cases has a expectation, built upon unambigously laid out terms and well-defined history, of what he or she is supposed to receive — and this expectation is violated in an objective manner.

In fortune-telling on the other hand, the customer gets what he or she should expect to get. The product in this case exactly matches the average consumer’s reasonable understanding of it.

Suppose that in a hypothetical world where it is really possible to predict the future and lots of people do so successfully, I (in my current state of ignorance) decide to set up shop and represent myself as equivalent to those other real fortune tellers. Then I will be committing fraud, because I will be giving the customer an objectively different product than from what he asked for and had reason to expect. But in our world, the average customer knows what fortune telling entails. In fact many people who go to these tellers are there just for the fun of it. As Matt Bandyk puts it, “To say that the local government needs to `protect’  its citizens from the `fraud’ perpetrated by these businesses is giving the fortune tellers too much credit, and its customers too little credit. These customers know what they are getting into when they sit in front of the tarot cards or a crystal ball–if it makes them feel a little bit better, and a local business benefits, who is really being hurt in that exchange?”

If you still think fortune-telling should be outlawed by the government on grounds of fraud, consider that by the same expanded logic, all religious institutions are committing fraud. Do we really want to live in a world where the government has the power to decide the correctness of speech to this degree and ban your speech whenever it doesn’t meet their test?

(Hat Tip: The Agitator)

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The city of Belmont, California, recently passed a law that bans you from smoking in your own house if it shares a floor or ceiling with another apartment. So how far will smoking bans go, and how harmful really is second-hand smoke?

Watch this great documentary by the folks at Reason magazine where they take on such questions.

I hate the smell of cigarette smoke as much as anyone. However, as Nick Gillespie puts it, “You may like the nanny-state when it watches something you hate, but sooner or later politicians will go after something you like.” The same thing of course, was expressed decades ago in a different context by Martin Niemoller.

That is why there is no such thing as trivial nanny-stating. Whether it is helmet laws or smoking bans or drug laws, it is the same insidious principle and it needs to be opposed. But I am straying from the original point, which is — watch the video.

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Eugene Volokh has a thoughtful post about the matter. There’s not much I need to add. A sad day for freedom.

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Read about it here.

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