Is smoking democratic?

A smoker (source Alberto Ferrero)

More on Sarah Palin, I’m afraid. Her purported belief in creationism, which turns out on closer inspection to be nothing of the kind, has led to an interesting discussion about the role of received authority in political decision-making.

Christopher Caldwell, in the Financial Times (read it here) suggests that the refusal to discuss creationism – or its close relative Intelligent Design – in schools amounts to the overruling of the democratic process by experts. People who know more than you or I are telling us what we should study.

The ban on smoking is another example he quotes, where “In the US, at least, there was little democratic participation in the decision.” Maybe in America, but not in Britain. It’s been a political question, although the scientific evidence is so compelling that no serious political party has tried to challenge it.

Christopher Caldwell describes these debates as “a fight that pits technocrats against democrats.” No it doesn’t. It pits different groups of democrats against each other. It is perfectly legitimate, and indeed necessary, for politicians to debate how to react to the facts revealed by science. Those facts are not determined by democratic vote, but the policies should be.

Take climate change, for example. There are several different sets of policies that might be adopted, each with winners and losers. We shouldn’t accept that it is up to the scientists to tell us what to do. The question of how, or whether, to attempt to preserve our way of life is a controversial political question and should not be disguised as anything else.

The bigger question, from the point of view of this blog, is the extent to which the political structures permit those political discussions. In the case of the ban on smoking in pubs, it seems arguable to me that this should be decided locally. While it is a public health matter, it is also a matter of competition between pubs, and given that pubs where I live in London are not competing against pubs in Newcastle, why should they have the same laws? (One could say that public health concerns trump everything else, but I think that special case can anyway be made for pubs.)

At the other end of the scale, policies to fight climate change, if we want them, have to be enacted globally. The absence of suitable global institutions vitiates our concern about climate change, regardless of our democratic decision about how to react to the science. And that can’t be right.

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More on Intelligent Design here, by the excellent A C Grayling.

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