Time for a nation of one piece

By Beryl Wajsman on March 15, 2012

A biographer of U.S. Supreme Court Justice and champion of civil liberties Louis D. Brandeis, once described him as a man with a “mind of one piece.” He took the phrase from Brandeis’ own teaching. The great jurist had tried to instill in his students, colleagues and indeed in public officials, the understanding that for the people to feel that their governors are dispensing justice there must be equity in the law. And for there to be equity there must be consistency. And for there to be consistency there must be reason. A holistic approach not only to the law, but to society as a whole. Reason, consistency, equity, justice.

Two events occurred this past week in our two largest provinces that brought these fundamental  and undying principles to mind. One occurred in Quebec, the other in Ontario. They brought Brandeis’ thoughts to mind because the inconsistency – indeed hypocrisy – of what occurred was so blatant, though not done in concert, that it is staggering that there has not been a greater outcry. But that is perhaps a sad testament to the fact that Quebecers pay little attention to the rest of Canada and the reverse is also true.

I have written often in this space that it is not the role of the state to legislate or seek to control our personal vices or virtues. The essence of a free society is the freedom to choose Even if one chooses badly. But for the state to demonize or criminalize certain behaviour and then turn around and profit from those self same vices, should be unacceptable. And the converse is also true. That the maintenance of individual freedom requires each individual citizen to  take individual responsibility. We understand, that notion is not fashionable today. But that does not make it any less empirically true.

In Quebec, the courts granted permission for a massive class-action suit against the three largest cigarette manufacturers. The suit is for $27 billion dollars. The plaintiffs claim that they got hooked on cigarettes without knowing that nicotine was addictive nor all the other health risks. Furthermore, they claim that the manufacturers hid and destroyed scientific tests to that effect over the years. The cost of the suit to Quebec taxpayers will be substantial. Somewhere in eight figures. But that’s not the issue. The issue is economics, free enterprise and the hypocrisy of government and of the plaintiffs.

Before the 1964 US Surgeon General’s report linked cigarette smoking to a variety of maladies, one could claim some degree of ignorance of the bad effects of smoking. Whether or not the manufacturers suppressed reports is irrelevant. But the plaintiffs in this case started smoking, for the most part, after 1964. Indeed, many started years after. If they didn’t “know” the negative effects of smoking then they didn’t want to know. What are we going to see now? Suits against food companies because people will claim they didn’t “know” that junk food filled with trans-fat clogs their arteries and  make them fat? Or against liquor companies because they didn’t “know” that drinking a half-bottle of whiskey a day may destroy your liver? If they didn’t know they didn’t want to. Nobody has a right to be that ignorant. But there is yet a larger issue here.

The manufacture of cigarettes is perfectly legal. As is smoking. As is eating. As is drinking. And that is as it should be in a free society. Furthermore, the government’s grab of taxes from cigarette sales is one of its greatest sources of revenue. In some jurisdictions 40% of the costs of a pack is taxes. And no, the results of smoking are not a strain on the health system. Smokers on average pay eight times the amount of taxes in their lifetimes than non-smokers and die earlier thereby saving the state the cost of chronic care. But our courts, working in the midst of the popular anti-smoking frenzy that the state has not stopped, is allowing a suit that could wipe out a legal industry and cost us north of 10,000 jobs. Several years ago the American conglomerate Altria got tired of the US regulations and hypocritical lawsuits and spun off its Marlboro tobacco unit abroad. Philip Morris International is now based in Switzerland. Makes its products in several European countries and is bigger than ever. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost in the US. Is that the result we want here? Or is the state’s silence on this class action suit someone’s idea of redistribution of income? The government simply wants it both ways. Keep collecting taxes from cigarette sales, and pander to the popular Quebec mindset of “it’s not my fault”, it’s “les autres” on the other.

In Ontario the government went a degree further in direct hypocrisy. It announced a nine-figure program to expand gambling. Yes, expand. Thousands of new lottery terminals, slots and a brand spanking new casino. So gambling is illegal for citizens in their private lives, but the government can engage in its promotion and propagation. Why? Just to sucker us in. Why should we lose money to each other at our discretion and by our choice. No. The government wants us to lose it only to it. So in Ontario, something that is illegal for citizens in their private lives, is now encouraged more than ever in the public realm. And by the way, where is the outcry over how gambling destroys families?

In one week we have seen a legal enterprise demonized in Quebec, and an illegal activity appropriated even more by the state and participation in it greatly encouraged in Ontario. The hypocrisy leaves one breathless. How do we keep a country in one piece when our governors don’t have minds of one piece?  No reason, consistency, equity or justice is possible in such a public agenda. It is time for a nation of one piece. Meyer Lansky said in the 1930s that by the end of the 20th century the government will control liquor, gambling and prostitution. Lansky was truly a seer. He was only a few years and one vice off. But that’s coming too.

 

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