Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Libertarians and smoking bans

Megan McArdle asks an important question:

Henry Farrell's interesting post on smoking bans reminds me of an ongoing question that I have never heard a libertarian answer satisfactorily. Smoking in bars and so forth is dangerous to bystanders who have pulmonary disease (the dangers of secondhand smoke to those who are not already breathing-impaired seem to be largely mythical). It's noxious to some other number of people who do not smoke. The libertarian rejoinder to the smoking bans is that bars could choose not to smoke if people wanted it. But in practice, despite the fact that smokers are a minority, and most people hate it, almost no establishment went non-smoking without government fiat.

This seems like a market failure....

You can explain it, but this doesn't seem like a good market outcome by any measure....

And I think that politically, if not intellectually, the success of smoking bans is a heavy blow to libertarian credibility.

Fair question, and deserves an answer. Several of them.

1) Markets don't care about desireable outcomes. Markets are not sentient beings with goals, agendas, and objectives. Markets are complex, non-linear systems that operate blindly according to inputs and situations, just like evolution. The only way that markets can fail is to go out of existence through inability to adapt to changing conditions. So not only doesn't the market desire, guarantee, or produce specific outcomes on demand, markets are incapable of doing so. The Libertarian argument is that governments attempting to manipulate markets generally produce less desireable outcomes than leaving the market alone....

2) A Libertarian would argue that an across-the-board smoking ban does not represent a success, because it deprives people who smoke of the ability to have a night out in a restaurant, bar or tavern frequented by other people who share the same vice. In the same fashion that across-the-board age requirements for the consumption of alcohol, voting, sexual intercourse, purchasing firearms both empowers people of any age who probably should never drink, cast a ballot, screw, or own a gun, it also lumps in capable 15-17 year olds who would do a much better job at all four, but who are nevertheless regulated as children. There are arguably three categories of customers: those who smoke, those who don't smoke but don't care if others do; and those who don't smoke and are not willing to tolerate anybody else smoking in their area.

[I leave out the employee second-hand smoke issue, because--quite frankly--virtually every job comes with health hazards, voluntary or involuntary. An example: finding a building on my campus two years ago literally overrun with noxious mold that was causing multiple health complaints, I discovered as union rep that--guess what?--there are no State or Federal regulations regarding how much mold in your workplace is too much. OSHA says that science hasn't solved that one yet. We were talking square feet of flaking black mold on walls and floors, but there is no science....]

3) So, from a Libertarian viewpoint, what would be the best way to help secure the property rights of those who don't want to deal with smokers (because of health issues or just because it is a noxious habit) without violating the property rights who have chosen to participate in a legal if often shunned activity?

You could approach the problem the same way we approach liquor sales in restaurants, through allowing businesses to purchase tobacco licenses and advertise themselves as all-smoking restaurants...

You leave it to the discretion of the lowest level of government, wherein the people in the locality would vote on initiatives, town by town, county by county....

Or the opponents of smoking could organize a boycott. If they indeed control the majority of dollars spent at restaurants and bars, then their resolve to withhold their business will eventually affect the business owners.

But that doesn't happen in America much any more--why? Because it's easier to get your legislators to implement restrictive laws than to organize opinion yourself....


Anonymous said...


You can't just ignore the health hazards because "virtually every job comes with health hazards, voluntary or involuntary." No, most jobs don't require you to breath in carcinogenic air eight hours a day.

As somebody once noted, having a smoking area inside a public area is like having a peeing area in a swimming pool. You can't contain it.

Licensing "All Smoking" establishments would require a whole new set of enforcement rules and a new bureaucracy. How libertarian would that be?

The smoking ban was the best thing Ruth Ann did.


Tyler Nixon said...

Assumed risk, with clear notification to potential patrons has been my mantra since it was banned in Delaware establishments years ago.

In short, prominent signs at all entrances and ingresses : "This establishment permits patrons to smoke. If you do not wished to be exposed to tobacco smoke, do not enter this establishment. The risk is yours to assume."

Same information would be presented to potential employees, re : working in the facility.

This protects property rights and consumer choice, without nanny state blanket bans. Quite libertarian.

Tyler Nixon said...

Of course, on the flip side, any establishment has the power to ban smoking, as many did long before Nanny Minner's and the General Assembly's busybodies' blanket ban.

ChrisNC said...

Megan is confused about what constitutes a market failure. She considers herself enlightened, so that her assumption of what the market SHOULD do is somehow God-given. When the rest of the consumers don't make the enlightened choice, that constitutes a failure. The truth is, and this is where Libertarianism comes in, real people weigh choices, between possible outcomes, and choose the one THEY prefer. That produces the market response. There is no failure involved. It is simply a matter of people rejecting her chosen outcome for THEM.

tom said...

"The libertarian rejoinder to the smoking bans is that bars could choose not to smoke if people wanted it. But in practice, despite the fact that smokers are a minority, and most people hate it, almost no establishment went non-smoking without government fiat."

These statements are not entirely correct.

While smokers are a minority of the general population, the demographics look very different when you consider the patrons of particular types of businesses. For example, before the bans, smokers (either by themselves or in combination with non-smokers who did not object to cigarette smoke) were a strong majority at most bars. At cigar bars, nonsmokers were almost completely unrepresented. At other types of establishments where the numbers were different, smokers were often seated in separate fully enclosed dining rooms or bar areas.

Second, I can name a handful of establishments in NCC, and a few dozen in the Philly area that voluntarily went fully non-smoking long before the respective bans went into effect. In addition, a much larger number of businesses installed or upgraded their air filtration systems in response to requests from non-smoking customers.

While many libertarians may disagree with me, I would argue that the libertarian position is that the final decision as to what activities are permitted in any given establishment rightfully belongs to its owner. Whether or not said owner chooses to maximize their profits, or make decisions based on other factors such as their personal prejudices will strongly influence their long term success.

Without government intervention, it looked like the market was leaning toward nonsmoking theaters & concert halls, nonsmoking or segregated restaurants, hotels with a fraction of rooms designated smoking allowed, and smoking allowed in bars, clubs, pool-halls, casinos & off-track betting parlors.

And for the record, I've never been a smoker, and find smoke annoying or offensive, but I'm willing to tolerate it in public places as long as it's not in my personal space and not so concentrated that even smokers would find it hard to breathe.

Miko said...

I recall when my state banned smoking in restaurants. It was nice; it was very nice. I wouldn't mind too much if the government was wittled down to its essential function of preventing people from smoking around me, since, according to Rothbard, I'm allowed one deviation from the pure-libertarian line. (Aside: I don't care what they do when they aren't around me.)

McArdle underestimates the power of market forces to convince restaurants to go non-smoking (I know of quite a few restaurants that were nonsmoking long before the state came in on the issue). The libertarian temptation is to make the same error in the opposite direction: I fully admit that markets aren't perfect, and that I'll miss smoking bans once we get to libertopia. The libertarian answer needn't be that the problem has a magical market-based solution, but just that a cooperative society is our best available option. Out of respect for justice, I'm willing to sacrifice some degree of personal preference/comfort out of respect for the rights of others (although I would of course still try for a market solution). That's the price of living in a free society.

The fact that a "perfect" world isn't an available option is unfortunate, but hardly a serious challenge to the credibility of libertarianism.

Miko said...

By the way: there is a libertarian argument for smoking bans, although it's not a very good one.

Libertarianism respects the right of the individual to be secure in her person and property, in the "your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins" sense. Thus, one could argue a property owner lacks the right to say that, for example, murder is legal on her property, since inalienable natural rights trump alienable property rights. It's just a small leap from there to the claim that second-hand smoke is an unjustified aggression against the bystanders who have pulmonary disease.

The main problem I see with this argument concerns the extent to which this right is enforcable (and against whom), since a proportional response would be an ineffective deterrent.

tom said...

on private property that argument fails miserably for pretty much anything short of murder.

on truly public property (as opposed to private property that is open to the public under certain conditions) it would make sense that the pulmonary disease victim has as much right to be there as the smoker, so smoking in their presence could be considered a trespass. but we were discussing private property.

Brian Shields said...

If i see every coal miner dying of black lung disease, and then go work in a coal mine, I have no right to bitch about getting black lung disease.

I have the right to find a job elsewhere. I don't have to live in the area where coal mining is the only occupation. I don't have to be a coal miner.

You don't have to work in a smoking environment. If the establishment finds that it is hard to employ people because of health hazards, then he will be forced to make improvements or change his smoking policy. How hard is that?

You have free will, use it.

I remember my childhood, back before Massachusetts had a smoking ban implemented in the early 90's. One restaurant said they were going smoke free. They GAINED business because they were the only restaurant in the county that was smoke free. Smokers were pissed, but 99% of the restaurants in the county catered to them, so they took their business elsewhere.

Free market system worked before the state stepped in and leveled the playing field with the smoking ban.

VitaminN said...

I started smoking e-cigs. I seem to smoke less since I don't "have to" smoke a whole cigarette. I am back to enjoying smoking now that I am not forced outside to smoke and not to mention it doesn't smell at all. I tried a few brands but settled on this one since i can get the most "smoke" or vapor with it. http://greensmoke.com/indoors/

ladera12 said...

I found an Electronic Cigarette that allows me to smoke in banned areas and I really like it. The reason is because when you exhale there is no smoke only vapor and they allow you to choose the level of nicotine that you want. Friday on CNN they did a piece on the Electronic Cigarettes and said the same thing plus a number of other positive points.
If you want to check it out go to this link


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Anonymous said...

I think we need to redefine "market failure" here. A market fails when it does not require the participants to fully recognize the costs of their actions. In a smoker's case, their rights end at my nose... literally. If they fail to recognize the costs of their own actions, than government has the responsibility to intervene. In the event there is no reasonable way for smokers to recognize the costs of their smoking, then government should require them not to affect others with it.

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