Ontario health minister George Smitherman thinks it's time for a "discussion" on whether the province should ban smoking in apartment buildings — or, both more and less precisely at the same time, "some" apartment buildings. But what is there to discuss? Either his government is committed to curbing "the deadly effects of second-hand smoke in highrises," or it is not. There is certainly no point discussing the propriety of political intervention in private property or contractual agreements between private interests — that debate was ceded long ago in favour of politics, even if only by the politicians themselves. Just to start off the list, we have smoking bans in bars, right? Complaints based on the merits of private property rights cannot be upheld by precedent — precedent establishes quite the opposite, that property is private only to the extent that politics will allow it.
Ah, that's more like it — there are costs and burdens for politicians after all, otherwise known as votes, although for the politicians there are opportunities as well, even if not so much for the voters. Mr. Smitherman is putting out a feeler for the electoral costs and opportunities of a proposed smoking ban. These will not turn out to be significant for the parties directly affected — renters are not typically hardened enough rent-seekers at the polling booth to make any great difference to the governing party's fortunes, while highrise landlords have bigger regulatory fishes to fry with the government than what for them would be only a matter of inconvenience. Meanwhile, talking the "market forces" talk suggests a congenial willingness to compromise — even if he must manufacture the problem to be compromised in the first place, and even if there is no compromise to be had. The health minister expects instead that even mouthing the proposal will burnish his already formidable progressive credentials among that group of voters susceptible to those kinds of blandishments, and placate co-operative "health" lobby groups. It's not any great big deal to Mr. Smitherman, but he knows at the same time that there is no cost in suggesting it. It won't happen soon, but down the road… Oh, and those private property rights can just continue to go to hell.
"We've got to look at it from a regulatory standpoint," he said. "We sure will do that. There will be a good discussion. But there is a lot of power in the hands of the people."