While running for office in 2002 I learned I was being laid off from my job at public health. What would I do? The manager of the tobacco prevention program was vacant, I was eligible, I applied, and I got the job. I was ambivalent. Smoking is bad. What else is there to say on that topic? Was it worth 12 staff and a $1.5 million annual budget?
I discovered the power of principle and beauty of data. We said, over and over, tobacco related illness and disease is the leading preventable cause of death in the country. This was data that over decades had become indisputable. Nobody would argue that smoking was good. Nobody would encourage anyone else to become addicted to it. Yet our public policy didn’t treat the problem with gravity data indicated.
My avid enforcement of the smoking ban ran headlong into libertarian sentiment as well as self-interested opposition from prominent bar owners. People should be able to choose what they do regardless of the consequences to themselves. Government shouldn’t interfere with a person’s right to harm themselves.
I discovered the deep roots of our country’s affection for Thomas Jefferson, an eccentric who had some extreme and French views about government. I also discovered Alexander Hamilton, a champion of British style government. Both reflected genuine American views of government. Jefferson thought government ought to leave people alone. Hamilton, on the other hand, thought government had a role in shaping a common good.
I am with Hamilton. If we accept data as our language, then we must follow it where it leads. Good government provides rules and order but no program or guarantee for outcomes. If government works, if it is just, it strives for the common good even when common sentiment misaligns with that common good.
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