TCS Daily

Post-Reductio America

By Radley Balko - November 19, 2003 12:00 AM

In the world of debate, philosophy and law, there's a method of attacking your opponent's argument known as reductio ad absurdum. In this line of attack, you take your opponent's argument to its most extreme conclusion, you reveal the most absurd consequences that could come of his position, and oftentimes, in the process, you reveal the flaws in his reasoning.

Recently, Reason magazine writer Julian Sanchez, who also maintains a personal weblog, coined the term reductio creep. Sanchez came up with the term to describe the age we live in, which he suggests is increasingly becoming an age where absurdity isn't possible anymore, particularly when debating public policy, and particularly for those who happen to advocate limited government. The reductio line of attack doesn't work anymore because we live in an era where the tentacles of government penetrate every nook of our public and personal lives, and for those who advocate this massive, expansive state, there's simply no policy too intrusive, no regulation too absurd, no attempt at social engineering too ambitious that it's beyond the realm of possibility. Not only does the reductio line of argument no longer work on these people, it gives them new ideas.

Ten years ago, when the first of the tobacco lawsuits were making their way through the courts, critics rightly saw them as a subversive way of enacting public policy by bypassing the legislative process, and often used the reductio line of attack when criticizing them. The class action suits absolved the smoker of responsibility, critics said. It's ridiculous to hold the manufacturers of a legal product liable, particularly for damages incurred by smokers who were aware of the ill-effects of smoking. Take these suits to their logical conclusion, critics said, and what's to stop people from suing fast food companies for their own obesity? Why not let victims of violent crime sue gun manufacturers?

It seemed like a good argument at the time, didn't it? Try to make a reductio argument about class action suits given today's headlines. It's tough. There's really nothing too ridiculous to imagine.

About six years ago I took a creative writing class at a local community college. Each week, we'd discuss a piece of short fiction written by one of our classmates. I remember one guy wrote a piece of satire called "The Non-Smoking Section." The guy was a gifted writer. He detailed scenes where smokers huddled together under the gray skies of winter, shivering, crammed together in officially demarcated "smoking zones" drawn up by state officials. The zones that were always outside, always within sight for ridicule from nonsmokers, and always purposely drawn far too small to accommodate the number of smokers who needed to use them. The zones were so small, smokers usually ended up burning one another. Fights broke out. A few people caught fire. The guy purposely drew historical allusions to Jim Crow, even to concentration camps, to hammer home his point. 

I remember that our biggest criticism of the guy's story was that it was too over the top, even for satire. Even six years ago, none of us could imagine day when public smoking wasn't allowed anywhere, particularly at privately-owned bars and restaurants.


And yet life and satire inch closer. Today, you can't smoke in New York City's theater district. You can't smoke at CBGB. In New York City, not only is my former classmate's story not overwrought, it underestimates the extent of the state's wrath for tobacco. In New York, smokers can't even huddle and shiver over their fix in the winter cold. That will only get them a citation for loitering. Of course, like all state attempts to curb "bad" behavior, the ban isn't working. It's merely creating more problems. The excise taxes on cigarettes are merely pushing the cigarette market underground. Convenience stores no longer make money off of cigarettes. But criminals do.


Now the nannies are coming to Washington, D.C. And it's likely that they'll get their way. Backed by a quarter-million dollar grant from the New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (solidifying its reputation as chief financier of restricting personal choice), sentiment around town is that most of the D.C. city council is set to support the ban. Business owners in the very heart of the free world may soon be told that they aren't permitted to allow their own customers to make their own decisions about whether or not to light up a cigarette. Because the Washington, D.C. city council is set to declare that city council officials are better suited to decide what health risk Washington D.C. residents ought to take than Washington, D.C. residents themselves.


Of course, this isn't really about the right to smoke in a private business. There are plenty of businesses -- bars and restaurants among them -- that don't allow smoking. And there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, the scolds who want to ban smoking in Washington maintain a list of such places on their website. Oddly, that's precisely the point. There are options in D.C. for those who don't want to be bothered by secondhand smoke. "Smoke Free D.C.'s" list proves that.


Rather, this is about property rights. It's about choice. It's about a Washington, D.C. bar owner having the freedom to run his bar in the manner he sees fit, to cater to whatever clientele he wishes, and to do so without interference from a city council influenced by junk science, politically correct propaganda, and the paternalism of an alleged "public health" foundation in New Jersey.


Give these people your cigarettes, and next they'll come for your beer.


Another reductio argument? Unfortunately not.


The same Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that's sponsoring these "smoke free" initiatives around the country is also determined to restrict access to and reduce the consumption of alcohol. They've spent millions on "Fighting Back," a multi-city program explicitly aimed at curbing per capita alcohol consumption through zoning laws, advertising restrictions, bans on drink specials and happy hours, and a variety of other state-enforced initiatives aimed squarely at social drinking. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences suggested that the alcohol industry is to blame for underage drinking, and suggests that curbing all Americans access to alcohol is probably the only way to curb young Americans' access to it. Trial lawyers and nanny statists are already chomping at the bit.


Legislators in New York state want to ban you from smoking in your own car in front of your own children. Anti-tobacco advocates are suggesting that family courts take the smoking habits of parents into consideration when awarding custody and visitation rights. Yep. They've just found the rhetoric to get into your home.


This stuff is beyond satire. It's beyond parody. Absurdity is dead. Welcome to post-reductio America. It's sterile. It's antiseptic. And we're all a little less free.


But hey, at least we don't go home smelling like smoke.


Radley Balko is a Tech Central contributor and maintains weblog. He's also the author of the forthcoming Cato Institute paper "Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking." He doesn't smoke.


For more on the D.C. smoking ban, visit the BantheBan website.


1 Comment

No Subject
That creative writing classmate's story employed the fallacy of reductio ad hitlerum in comparing a smoking zone to jim crow. He's saying that separation for smokers is bad because it's like jim crow, which was bad and involved separation. But, reductio ad absurdum, this argument suggests that unisex bathrooms are bad, sequestering criminals is bad, cordoning off construction zones is bad, keeping the mob lawyer separate from jury deliberations is bad, etc. because they all involve separation enforced by law like jim crow. But it was not separation that made Jim Crow bad and separation, as in the cases above, is not always bad.

I think it is just to consider smokers as a group with special attributes of concern to the policing power of the state. We should apply common sense. If the problems of policing tobacco use aren't worth the benefits--a la prohibition--we should not pursue it, even though on the health issue it looks favorable.

The appeal to freedom is interesting. But freedom isn't in itself a great argument for something. Freedom should be constrained when behavior leads to injury, to oneself and others, and that injury is great enough to warrant an attempt to protect society against it and incurring the associated costs. We should curtail people's freedom to use prescription drugs for recreation, to libel other people, to commit crime, to mislead others into making terrible financial decisions. Reductio creep is an interesting observation, but as an argument like you use it itself becomes a fallacy, because it refuses to look at the merits of a case, instead appealing to tradition, natural, authority, etc.

You are also using the reductio ad absurdum argument fallaciously. You may misunderstand what the idea means. If you call something adbsurd, wihout saying why it is absurd, that's argumentum ad lapidem, or appeal to absurdity. Simply saying something is absurd, isn't reductio ad absurdum. You must show why it is absurd, and by absurd we mean that the premises can logically lead to a conclusion that is absurd. The question is what is absurd? Well, you have to make some kind of argument for that.

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