Sunday, January 6, 2008

A tribute to Lee Sherman Dreyfus

In a few minutes I'll to to Waukesha to pay my last respects to Lee Sherman Dreyfus, my old friend and mentor, whose loss will be deeply felt.

I wrote last week about what a terrific guy and inspiring governor Lee was. A quick wit, a big heart, keen intellect and common-sense principles.

This morning I spent quite a bit of time reading Lee's last newspaper columns written for the Waukesha Freeman which were in large measure exactly the stuff that made him the great man he was. But then there was one which seemed to be disingenuous.

We know it's generally not accepted to speak ill of the deceased. The Lee Sherman Dreyfus I know, however, was always the quintessential university professor aching to make you think and react. He loved the challenge of a good debate and hated mindless mush.

So, here goes, my friend.

Last March you wrote a criticism of the proposed hike in the state's cigarette tax.

You acknowledged that secondhand smoke kills and that increasing the tax will likely deter young smokers from getting hooked. But then you went south on us to bemoan the use of taxation to control behavior: "I’m amazed at businesses that support legislation that could put another business out of existence. I’m referring to the cigarette companies, distributors, smoke shops and tobacco farmers. They don’t seem to realize that if the state can tax one business out of existence, then their own business could also be eliminated when someone in Madison thinks it should. There is more to this issue than the banning of smoking, and we need to think about that carefully."

Lee, conceptually you make a good point but applied to the particular situation its value diminishes.

First, we already do tax to control behavior. A good example is speeding. The law doesn't say "thou shall not exceed 65 miles per hour on the freeway" but rather than someone who does faces a civil forfeiture (tax) if convicted in court of that violation.

Second, when public health and safety is concerned, the rights of the public to a safe environment take precedence. This is basic Libertarian thinking: your rights stop where my nose begins (to paraphrase John Stuart Mill). Throughout our state's history we legitimately have regulated or prohibited conduct when that conduct imperils public health and safety. This is fully in keeping with Wisconsin's progressive tradition.

Third, I'm shocked that the state's most vocal proponent of "Let the people decide" would fail to recognize that in virtually every referendum vote -- whether in Bristol, Oshkosh or the entire state of Florida -- tobacco use restrictions won. Further, as a strong advocate of representative democracy, you should be championing those legislators who are following the will of the people versus the big money interests that are making Wisconsin the ashtray of the midwest.

And finally, where's your criticism of why our government used taxpayer dollars to provide price supports to tobacco growers?

Lee, my friend, your broad concept is appealing but when you get down to the nitty gritty here, it doesn't wash. I love you dearly but you're wrong.

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