Redefining “Public”

The difference between Owned by the Public & Open to the Public.

This was written in November of 2003 when smoking in “public” was still an issue and only a few studies had been done into the effects of “second-hand smoke”. The examples are a bit dated, but the subject is still appropriate and applicable today.

By: Allan Wallace

Did fat-cat politicians in smoke-filled back rooms plot how to change the working definition of the word “Public” in the mind of Americans, or did it naturally evolve as a consequence of the nature of political government? It really doesn’t matter, it happened and now we have to deal with it every time we try to explain why government should butt-out of certain situations.

Some time ago, I tried to explain to my liberal friends why the gay community was wrong in their determination to fight the Boy Scouts of America over the firing of a gay scout leader. My argument: they’re a private organization and have the right to include or exclude whomever they want, exactly the same as gay organizations who may want to decide their membership or who they employ. Their argument: they can’t be private when they accept public funds and open their membership to the public. My response was that it is deplorable when any private or nonprofit organization accepts government grants or other valuable considerations that originated as taxes and expect no government interference in their affairs. But, that alone is not enough to change the BSA’s status from private to public; and on their second point, they obviously misunderstand the meaning of the word “Public”.

Their mistake was in believing politicians when they define “Public” as: anything that involves the public, regardless of where the activity in question takes place. Politicians have encouraged this new definition and used the government schools and bully pulpit to disseminate it.

The real definition of public can be found in the answer to this questions: Who owns it, government or someone else? If government owns it or by extension, the citizens, then it is public. But if the owner is anything or anyone else then the issue rests firmly in the private realm into which a more libertarian government would not encroach. A structure built by and for the government, one that is paid for with money taken from taxpayers is obviously public, but a business owned by and invested in by an individual, partnership, or corporation is definitely private even though it may open its doors to customers from the public at large.

The new definition has become so pervasive that it gives the politicians, busy-bodies, all the “nosey parkers” of this world a way to butt into other people’s business while maintaining that it is all for the public good. This can happen because of the blurring of the line between “owned by the public” and “open to the public.”

No other recently debated issue has brought this out more than the issues surrounding Smoking and the personal rights issue referred to as “smoker’s rights”.

Is smoking harmful to the smoker? Yes, I think everyone agrees on that now.
Is it anyone’s business if you smoke? NO, as long as you are not blowing smoke in other people’s face.
Has second-hand smoke been proven to be harmful to others? No, it has been proven only as an irritant so far. I believe it will be proven to be more than an irritant but not as hazardous as some believe. I grew up with two parents that smoke, if anyone should have been harmed by second-hand smoke, it should have been me. The only thing I can attribute to it is some sinus problems in my teens and twenties. (Subsequent studies have proven that 2nd hand smoke is more than an irritant.)

Even if it were proven hazardous, would that be enough to justify the use of government force to limit or ban smoking? If it is a government building (or a public sidewalk) where you might have been summoned for a tax audit, the answer is yes, the G-man has no right to blow smoke in your face. If it is a privately owned hotel or restaurant, the answer is no. Their door is open to the public but you are not compelled to enter; unlike taxes, you can choose to take your money elsewhere.

These are the two keys to understanding the smoking debate: the business owner’s right to conduct his business as he sees fit; and the citizens’ right to choose which businesses they will patronize. Things in the public realm are decided by government politicians and bureaucrats; the agents of the owners, if you will. Things in the private realm are decided by who owns the property. The business owners decide which patrons they wish to target; and since “You own You,” you decide if you will patronize a business that allows smoking, or not.

I am a former smoker who happens to find the smells associated with smoking to be personally offensive. But I am also a libertarian which means I take responsibility for where I go and which businesses I patronize; it means I sometimes withhold my patronage from businesses who do not conform to my range of acceptable practices. I do so even though that business might be the most convenient place to patronize, or in some cases it might even be the most inexpensive. But I would never dream of turning the power of government against my neighbor or even a local business to bend them to my will. I would feel like a hypocrite if I did, because I want the government to leave us alone to decide for ourselves what we individually will do with ourselves and our property.

The line between public and private has been breached by the popular redefinition and we as freedom loving individuals must not be sloppy in its use.

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