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Smoking is a subversive act

Smoking, Class and the Legitimation of power
Sean Gabb
Hampden Press 2005

What are you first reactions to reading this?

In any society, the main function of government is to provide status and incomes for the ruling class. However recruited, the members of such a class will be motivated by a disinclination to earn their living by voluntary exchange, or by a delight in coercing others, or by a combination of the two. Its size and activities will be determined by the physical resources it can extract from the people, by the amount of force it can use against them, and by the nature and acceptance of the ideology that legitimises its existence. None of these factors by itself will be decisive, but each is a necessary factor. Change any one, and the working of the other two will be limited or wholly checked.

Just the use of the phrase ‘ruling class’ is sufficient, among many people, to conjure up unfortunate images of Trotskyite college professors and bed-sit Che Guevarras. But read the above paragraph carefully. If you assumed that this was a bit of Marxist cant, you were wrong. In fact, it is an extract from the Introduction to the latest book by classical English liberal academic, Dr. Sean Gabb.

A large part of the book actually consists of reprints of three long articles that Sean originally penned in the late 1980’s for FOREST. Each article consists of defence of the right to smoke from a historical perspective, a Christian perspective and a Conservative perspective. Each is discussed in more detail below.

But this is more than just a reprint of previously iterated views. Dr. Gabb now concedes that while has analysis of the methodology of the anti-smoking lobby was accurate, even he was unclear as to the primary motivation behind the crusade, blaming various phenomena such as junk science, resonant Puritanism or decaying Marxism. But, as he now admits, he overlooked (or failed adequately to comprehend) the primary cause of the war on tobacco. Introduction

The pattern is so wearily familiar. One day, seemingly out of the blue, a shock, horror report about the dangers of [insert as appropriate] appear in some national news organ, apparently penned by some notable medically or scientifically qualified person or persons. Next thing, similar reports are making headline news right across the land. Then everyone starts talking about it and, more importantly, worrying about it. About this time, a hastily-assembled and previously unheard of squadron of ‘experts’ are appearing on every TV screen with furrowed brows and ominous assurances that [insert as appropriate] is a catastrophe that is blighting the lives of every man, woman and child in the land and the government must act now before it is too late. By the time you have switched over to the football, the legislative prohibition/restriction/regulation/taxation is already being spewed out of the government printing presses.

We all know how it works, but why? Why is it that these ridiculous crusades march on relentlessly from inception to fruition without a pause for debate, discussion, analysis or rebuttal?

The answer lies in the need for the political ruling class to maintain their legitimising ideologies:

An economy based on voluntary exchange is not inherently unstable and in need of programmes of demand management and a welfare state. People of different nationalities can live together without having to be bullied by law into pretending to love one another. We are not running out of natural resources, and our industrial pollutions do not threaten life on earth. There are no satanic child abusers. Sexual abuse of children is statistically insignificant. Smoking and drinking and consuming other drugs and fatty foods are at least less dangerous than is claimed, and there is no good reason to believe that passive smoking even exists. But whether a problem is real is far less important than whether the people can be brought to believe in its reality and in the need for solutions that justify income and status for the ruling class and its various client groups.

Take out the word ‘tobacco’ and one could replace it with fatty foods, firearms, marijuana, sport utility vehicles, pornography, alcohol or any number of other hobgoblins du jour.

Although this book is ostensibly presented as a defence of smoking, it is so much more than that. What Dr. Gabb has done is to present what I consider to be the most plausible unifying theory to explain the intrusions and predations of the modern welfare state and he does so by means of class analysis; a tool which, Dr. Gabb would contend, is every bit as essential to the free market movement now as it was to the Marxists in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Historical View

This section (written in or around 1990) takes us first of all through an infuriating account of the advance of the current anti-smoking lobby whose barely-occluded goal is the complete prohibition of tobacco in all forms.

It is impossible to deny that these people have all the political, legal and cultural momentum on their side right now but it may not always be so. Despite recounting in the gloomiest detail, the relentless success that these foes of liberty have enjoyed, Dr. Gabb takes us on a fascinating tour of the history of smoking to provide a soaring note of optimism. Anti-smoking laws may seem to us to have modern provenance but, in fact, they first started appearing only a few short years after the tobacco plant made its journey across the Atlantic.

Further, the previous rounds of anti-tobacco fury have often manifested themselves in draconian punishments for smokers ranging from excommunication to torture, castration and death. The good news is that every single one of these campaigns has ended in failure. Despite being threatened with the most blood-curdling of sanctions, people continued to smoke because they enjoyed smoking and, after a few short years, with the law in a state of disrepute, the authorities have always relented and let smokers simply do their thing.

The current crusaders may appear to be unstoppable but history is not on their side. They are merely the latest wave of killjoy busybodies whose ambitions will, sooner or later, be stubbed out.

Christian View

It is necessary to say at the outset that this is not a treatise on faith or theology. Rather, it is an analysis of the philosophical development of Christendom and the praxeological effects of the religion as reflected in both politics and morality.

No atheist or agnostic should be deterred from reading this finely wrought and scholarly essay which examines the pivotal role that Christianity has played in the development of Western canon in general, and Anglo-Saxon liberalism in particular.

Conservative view

Dr. Gabb is just about the only person I know who sees no inconsistency in calling himself both a Conservative and a Libertarian and in this essay he not only lays bare the base and scurrilous methods of the anti-smoking lobby but also persuasively argues the case that all Conservatives should defend both the right and freedom to smoke.

The right to advertise

This penultimate section of the book deals with the attack on advertising which has already succeeded in creating considerable limits and restrictions in pursuit of what are touted as altruistic aims.

Advertising is freedom of expression and that fact that the motives are commercial does not make it any less worthy of defending. In fact, Dr. Gabb makes the customarily persuasive point that it is precisely because of its unpopularity that it must be defended so resolutely:

It will be said against me, I have no doubt, that I am simply arguing for the right of people who are already very wealthy to go on making money from the needless suffering of others—that I am using the great names and arguments of liberalism to defend the most sordid of motives. That, however, is an occupational hazard. Unless its enemies are able to mount a frontal assault, freedom of any kind is invariably attacked in its outermost extensions, in those places where it is often least convenient or productive of honour to fight in its defence. But it is there that the battle is won or lost.

In conclusion, ‘Smoking, Class and Legitimation of Power’ is a fascinating, compelling, infuriating, uplifting and powerful book which resounds with quotable lines. It is not just a Weapon of Mass Debunkment, it is also, in my view, a highly valuable resource for anyone who seeks to maintain and defend the traditions of Western liberty from the various forces that threaten it.

In my humble opinion, this ranks as Dr. Gabb’s finest work to date and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

31 comments to Smoking is a subversive act

  • dearieme

    Good stuff, but I’m not sure that “ruling class” is quite the right expression, though it’s obviously a wonderful choice if you want to epater the left. What would do better? Ruling clique or gang might wrongly imply that it is a small bunch of villains, “mob” wrongly implies that it has lost self-control. Any offers?

  • Ian


    Ruling elite?

    Policically active non- “useful idiots”?

    Ruling 5% that give a s***?

  • Bolie Williams IV

    There will always be busybodies who wish to crusade against something and there will always be things to crusade against. Trying to pin the anti-tobacco movement on some nefarious ruling elite who wish to maintain the reins of power is silly.

    I would actually rather that an organized ruling elite of some kind were behind attempts to curtail our freedoms. If it were so, then there would be someone who could conceivably be vanquished. Unfortunately, the reality is that people like to control other people and like to have in-groups and out-groups. These impulses will lead to this sort of behavior. In addtion, a lot of people apparently prefer safety and security over freedom. Freedom can be quite scary and some people would rather not be scared.

    So those of us who like freedom will always have to fight those who don’t like it or don’t care.

    Bolie IV

  • What are you first reactions to reading this?

    In any society, the main function of government is to provide status and incomes for the ruling class.

    I am reminded of the chapter in David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom, entitled “Economics of Theft, or the Nonexistence of the Ruling Class”.

    That chapter isn’t webbed, unfortunately, but it’s an interesting read.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    David’s analysis is spot-on. Sean Gabb reminds us that class analysis is by no means the preserve of the Marxian left. It is essential to the classical liberal world view and has been neglected, although not entirely. In the post-war era, Irving Kristol and other “neo-cons” hit an important insight about how a new class was being formed from the whole cluster of folk working in areas like public services, universities, establishment media (or “MSM”), etc.

    I have had some rough things to say about Sean Gabb on the war in Iraq so it is a pleasure to say three cheers on what is clearly a sharp set of writing. Way to go Sean!

  • toolkien

    A ruling elite couldn’t rule if the mass, by and large, did not want to be. While I agree that there are plenty of people who desire to rule others, from a true paternal desire on to lovers of pure power, but they only succeed in doing so because people are generally superstitious. The large majority of the ruled need to have a disconnect between cause and effect and fill it with whatever illusion they can construct or consume. The fact that there are plenty of illusionists who are more than happy to oblige is certainly grist for discussion and debate, but I rarely see any blame put upon the supine mass who must be led.

    An analysis such as this that distills one act and then analyzes the dialectic between that one act and the State is out of context. I assert that even while smokers were being persecuted, they too had their own reasons to want a State. They, in their own way, wanted the State just as much as the next guy, it just so happened in this instance it was used against them. Of more interest would be why the persecuted still demand a bloated and aggressive State to exist. It is likely because they have their own agenda and sub-groups who need cuffing around. This is the only explanation I can come up with that the State continues to grow even while most people some problems with it. Most people have more desire to fix other peoples’ wagons and hope to not be caught for their own transgressions and wait for sunnier times. Most people, I believe, feel they have a net gain from the existence of the State, even as they are living in tyranny.

    There just aren’t enough people prepared to perfectly disinterested in other’s affairs.

  • Richard Easbey

    I like to think of the busybodies as the “parasite class.”

  • Gary Gunnels


    Right, that’s Gramsci’s basic insight; the ruled are governed by some form of consent (Foucault takes idea and runs with it in a lot of interesting ways).

  • Jordan Thursby

    Im not so sure if the state exists merely for that purpose. I honestly believe that the rulign class believes its doing the right thing by ‘forcing us to be free’. The problem is that everyone thinks theyve got an answer to lifes problems if only they had the power of the state to back them up. Although for soem politicians they really do want power and exercise power so they can have a job i think that for a lot of these people, the most dangerous ones really, they honestly believe theyre doing right by limiting the rights others. However apart fromt he first sentence i cant say i find anything i disagree with.

  • Gary Gunnels

    Writing of busy bodies, update on the National I.D. card issue in the USA:


  • Shawn

    I also took issue with Gabb’s stand on the Iraqi phase of the WOT, and more importantly his unfortunate anti-American diatribe at one point. But still, he is one of the few libertarians I can take seriously, and one of the few who understands that conservatism, patriotism and libertarianism are not necessarily antagonistic to each other.

    I have been working my way through the many articles at his web site, and I find much of what he says, especially his use of the language of class, quite brilliant.

  • Michael Farris

    “Despite being threatened with the most blood-curdling of sanctions, people continued to smoke because they enjoyed smoking”

    Oh please, you can say the same thing about any addictive drug.
    IME the majority of long term smokers continue to smoke because the withdrawal is so unpleasant, that is they smoke to keep from feeling bad, not because they enjoy it.
    Don’t libertarians have anything better to do than glamorize addictive behavior?

  • Brian S

    Michael – The concept of addiction is scientific nonsense. You might care to read
    this paper entitled “Addiction as a Cultural Concept”. Here’s the abstract:

    Our current conception of addiction is a historical anomaly, one that has arisen independent of laboratory or epidemiological data about drug use. This concept has never reflected actual patterns of heroin use, and it currently does no better at describing cocaine use. Neither this vision of heroin addiction nor an equally popular, complimentary model of alcoholism accurately reflects data on the cause, epidemiology, life history or consistency of addictive behavior. Nonetheless, versions of addictions based on these images of narcotic addiction and alcoholism have become increasingly popular in the second half of the twentieth century and have been generalized to whole new areas of behavior, where they succeed no better at explaining the data. These concepts, moreover, have considerable potential for doing harm.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Toolkien got it right. People just cannot get over their interest in other human beings, but why is that? Hobbes has the explanation in Leviathan, where people do give up freedom in exchange for security. Because we cannot get rid of our fear of death.


  • Shawn

    Human beings generally do not engage in any behaviour unless they are getting a payoff of some sort. Having once been a smoker I kept smoking because I enjoyed it, not because it was hard to give up. I especially enjoyed it after meals or over a beer. I was not “addicted”. I did it because I liked it.

    When I decided that I liked and enjoyed living healthy and free from lung cancer more than I liked the smoking I stopped.

    I dont think AA’s concept of addiction as disease has done our culture any favours. It shifts the focus away from personal responsibility.

  • anonymous coward

    Best thing I’ve read on Samizdata in a long time.

    Legislators and bureaucrats have to fill their time with something, so writing laws and regulations is an obvious effort. Why else do they exist?

    Those with an ax to grind love to influence the two groups above, and the two groups like to respond to show how well they serve the public.

    It doesn’t always work: a few years ago in the US we had a movement that believed that powerlines generated dangerous magnetic fields, and the sandal set were quite upset about it, but nothing in the way of laws, rules, or re-routing of power lines ever came of it.

    I live in a state in which the legislature does not meet year-round. From time to time there are efforts (by guess who?) to bring the legislature into a serious, mature state of perpetual session, but fear of the voters seems to have held this impulse in check.

    In the US we have seen the health crusade against tobacco turn into a massive looting of tobacco companies. The money supposedly compensates the states for their expense in dealing with all the sick smokers, but the legislators spend the money for anything but public health.

    Where is the Hercules who can cleanse this stable?

  • anonymous coward

    Gary Gunnels,

    Thanks for the link to the ID card piece.

    One benefit of the machine-readable driver’s license is that certain merchants (bars, motels) can ask you to produce the license, and then swipe it through a reader, thus pulling all of the information into their database.

  • Julian Morrison

    I think Mr Gabb is putting the cart before the horse. Paraphrasing a tad, “never attribute to malice what can be satifactorily explained by memetic natural selection”. It’s not that elites are being evil, but that an existing flaw in the human psyche has accreted parasitic behaviour. People morally panic. Given that, cultural mechanisms and ideologies will tend to evolve which cause and profit by moral panics.

  • Fred Z

    The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed [and hence clamorous to be led to safety] by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
    -H. L. Mencken

  • Michael Farris

    Brian S, thanks for the interesting link. His main thesis seems to be that institutionalized care sets up a limited number of categories and tries to pigeonhole people (and substances) into them. Real people and their behavior is not so easy to categorize, however. Overall, though he doesn’t seem to deny that the physical power of addiction.

    “There is some irreducible problem with being dependent on a chemical or other substance. One is always enslaved to it, for all this implies practically and in terms of one’s self image (…) we might warn people that if they really want to quit an addiction to cigarettes, they might as well wait until they can quit nicotine altogether (unless they can control and reduce their smoking, reportedly a not very common occurrence). “

  • Guy Herbert

    anaonymous coward: “One benefit of the machine-readable driver’s license […]”

    You are mocking when you describe this as a “benefit”, I hope. Any benefit is benefit to power, not the tagged and tracked subject-suspect.

  • zmollusc

    Speaking of addiction and danger, does anyone remember a drug called Ecstacy? As I recall, it was killing vast swathes of young people every day. Has it ceased manufacture? Was a less lethel version developed? Are there no young people left? Was it all a load of cheap space filler for ‘news’papers?

  • Andrew Duffin


    “A ruling elite couldn’t rule if the mass, by and large, did [sic] not want to be.”

    See also under Stalin, Molotov, Beria etc.

    Do you regard that as an exception? Or is you assertion in fact false?

  • Andrew Duffin

    Gabb writes very well and thinks very clearly; I can’t fault his thesis.

    otoh smoking is a disgusting stinking habit that cannot but impinge on others. Principles be damned, for once, I will be delighted when I can go into the pub (don’t talk about choice, we only have one pub where I live) and not have to shower myself and put all my clothes in the laundry as soon as I get home. What bliss it will be.

    If you think I am over-reacting that may be because you are a smoker and therefore don’t have a sense of smell.

  • Julian Morrison

    Yeah, Andrew Duffin, I will talk to you about choice. Namely the choice of the guy whose pub you are barging into. Would you intrude into someone’s home and put out their and their buddies’ cigarettes? Then why think you have any right to intrude into someone else’s pub?

  • toolkien

    See also under Stalin, Molotov, Beria etc.

    You mean ‘Papa Joe’ Stalin as some of the old guard still refer to him (wiping away tears)?

    A goodly number of people were rapturous over Hitler as well. It is a fact that the majority supported Hitler and his policies. Sure some people may have been a little queasy over the attacks on jews, and had some fear that someone might accuse them of something, but they adored the restoration of pride and stature he brought to Germany, which proves my point still further, they may have had some reservations about some matters, but supported the trend by and large.

    My assertion still stands that the majority of the people support the function of their government no matter how it is contrived. They may resent some pet activity that has been banned, but they continue in secret and hope they don’t get caught. Meanwhile they want the State bashing heads elsewhere supposedly on their behalf, for the causes they believe in. If it’s not a majority then it is a large minority coupled with ambivalence of a goodly portion of the rest, so they rule by consent or abstention.

  • R C Dean

    otoh smoking is a disgusting stinking habit that cannot but impinge on others.

    So is poor personal hygiene. Shall we outlaw that? Should we fine people who have not been scrubbed to your specifications?

    Principles be damned, for once,

    Why do I suspect that this is not “for once”?

    (don’t talk about choice, we only have one pub where I live)

    So you are perfectly willing to deny all your smoking neighbors the choice of having a pub they can go to and have a smoke with their pint? There being one pub and all, this is a zero-sum game. Why should you win?

  • Nick Timms

    What R C Dean said. If you do not want to be around smokers don’t go to that pub, go to one where the OWNER does not allow smoking. If there isn’t one and you think there may be sufficient demand perhaps you could make good profits by sponsoring a non-smoking pub yourself.

    For myself, although I gave up smoking 15 years ago, I would rather run the miniscule (IMHO) risk of contracting some illness, than sit in a smokeless pub without my friends. Food and drink in the company of friends is the greatest pleasure I can think of. You make your own choices and leave me to mine.

  • A gentleman called Charles Whitebread presented this idea to a group of judges in California in 1995.

    “once it divides between the movers and kickers and the moved and kicked it is all over “

    BTW he was explaining 10 years ago how the drug war will morph into the tobacco war. Most people back then thought he was exaggerating.

  • Harry Powell

    There has, I think, long been a need for an economic explanation of the existence of the tax-consuming class. The usual assertion that majorities always vote themselves the largesse of minorities seems unconvincing when the voter turnout has dwindled to a fraction of the franchise. If the public sector is roughly a fifth the size of the private then it defies explanation why the preponderance of voters, as rational, self-interested, economic individuals, should tolerate the predator class of the state run economy.

    Perhaps what would be useful here is to apply the understanding gained from Thorstein Veblen’s Economic Theory of the Leisure Class that societies often behave pathologically when cultural norms supersede fiscal sanity. Veblen and his audience thought they were addressing the ‘problem’ of turn-of-the-century robber barons, that was spurious since Vanderbilt and Rockefeller produced goods and services the market demanded yet Veblen’s description of socially a sanctioned parasitism applies better to our own non-productive leisure class of tax consumers even if their aspirations are entirely different. Where Veblen’s predators were motivated by conspicuous display and sought to distinguish themselves by the virtue of their strength or ability, our predators justify themselves by the vehemence of their egalitarian piety and measure their success by the size of their generosity with other people’s money. We know the state economy destroys value and erodes the tax base on which it depends but as a society we’ve allowed it grow because, I suspect, we’ve learnt to feel guilty about our wealth and wish to see ourselves as self-denying. It’s that which will have to be unlearnt before there will be real change.

  • Nicotine is a drug.

    The malady it treats is depression.

    Google – cigarettes depression – to learn more.

    The bottom line here is that the right to self medicate is being taken away one drug at a time.