The New York Times
By George McGovern (George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for
President in 1972, is the author of "Terry: My Daughter's Life and
Death Struggle with Alcoholism." He is also an original Guest Choice
Advisory Panel Member.)
Freedom of choice in our everyday lives is a treasured right in
America. That freedom should, of course, be balanced with a sense of
responsibility for our personal well-being and that of others.
Two high-profile lawsuits that hinged on the issue of choice were
decided in early May. In the first case, a Florida jury decided that
the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company did not have to pay damages to the
family of Jean Conner, who died of lung cancer at 49 after smoking for
34 years. A day later, a North Carolina man, Thomas Richard Jones, was
given a life sentence for killing two people while driving under the
influence of alcohol and drugs.
Mrs. Connor chose to smoke. Millions of Americans have quit smoking,
and Mrs. Connor admitted in a videotape made during the last stages of
her illness that she could have quit puffing had she cared enough.
I know too well the ravages of alcoholism, having lost my daughter to
her addiction. But I also know that people are able to make choices. In
the case of Mr. Jones, he was aware of the lethal effect of combining
prescription drugs with alcohol. One can argue that as an alcoholic,
Mr. Jones had a disease and therefore no choice to drink. But he had
the choice to take public or other transportation. Instead, he decided
to drive while drunk, and now has to accept the consequences.
Despite the death of my daughter, I still appreciate the differences
between use and abuse. I still enjoy a glass of wine with friends. I
also would not have denied Mrs. Connor her cigarettes. Nor do I condemn
the current trend in cigars. As the former owner of a Connecticut inn,
I always allowed my adult guests wide latitude in their habits. Scotch
was available at dinner, and there were convenient designated areas for
Today, however, there are those who would deny others the choice to
meat, wear fur, drink coffee, or simply eat extra-large portions of
food, to give a few examples. Wearing perfume in public raises the ire
of certain organized interest groups.
While on any day each of us may identify with the restrictive nature
a given campaign, there is a much larger issue here. Where do we draw
the line on dictating to each other? How many of these battles can we
stand? Whose values should prevail?
Life in America has remained relatively peaceful compared with that
other societies. But we are becoming less tolerant and more mean-
spirited in everyday social interactions. We have become less
forgiving. Suing institutions as well as each other for perceived harms
has become a ruinous sport.
It was reported in June that a 61-year-old man, Norman Mayo, is suing
Safeway and the Washington State dairy industry for failing to warn
about the dangers of drinking whole milk. A self-described "milk-
aholic," Mr. Mayo wants warning labels on all milk cartons to protect
others. Where does this end?
Some issues, like the proper treatment of animals, deserve public
debate. But that doesn't mean activists should assault people who wear
furs, destroy animal research laboratories or firebomb restaurants that
serve meat. These actions transform differences of opinion into
dangerous intolerance and intimidation.
On other issues, like gambling, the messages can be confusing. Is
casino gambling a moralistic issue when state lotteries and horse
racing are socially acceptable? Is the stock market different, or is it
just a harder game to understand?
New attempts to regulate behavior are coming from both the right and
the left, depending only on the cause. But there are those of us who
don't want the tyranny of the majority (or the outspoken minority) to
stop us from leading our lives in ways that have little impact on
While the choices we make may be foolish or self-destructive - bungee
jumping is my favorite example of insanity - there is still the
overriding principle that we cannot allow the micromanaging of each
other's lives. When if the thrill too risky? How many drinks are too
many? When is secondhand smoke too thick? All of these questions need
to be considered with some measure of tolerance for the choices of
We are witnessing a new age in this country: the fragmentation of
society along the lines that do not break on typical demographics like
race, age or income. These new divisions are based on paternalism -
what we believe is best for each other.
The beauty of choice is that it allows some people to drive a high-
powered car to dinner, allows others to have adrink with dinner and
allows a cigarette to be smoked after dinner. In all cases, we require
individuals to make certain their behavior does not have an impact on
others. To the degree that it does, they will be held responsible for
But when we no longer allow those choices, both civility and common
sense will have been diminished.