Monday, June 15, 2009

Struggling to Free Herself From Her Own Restraints

First, you twist the rope around to form a loop:

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.
Then, you put the loose end through the loop, and make another loop with the slack.
This seems like a market failure. You can explain it through preference asymmetry and the profitability of various customer classes: heavy drinkers are more likely to also be heavy smokers, and they are the most profitable customers. Bar owners don't want big groups of people who are going to take up three tables for an hour and a half while nursing one white wine spritzer apiece. They want people who are there to drink. In a competitive equilibrium, they couldn't afford to go non-smoking because they'd lose their most profitable customers to all the other bars.
Then you ask the unicorn in your head to put their thumb on the rope in between the loops as you put them through each other.
You can explain it, but this doesn't seem like a good market outcome by any measure. Let me be clear, I'm still against the smoking ban, even though I personally vastly prefer smoke-free environments; I think interfering with property rights like this has even heavier costs. But I also recognize that I'm in a minority. And I think that politically, if not intellectually, the success of smoking bans is a heavy blow to libertarian credibility.
Now you make sure everything is good and tight and VOILA! you're free. Now that your hands are bound you will no longer be tied down by reason. Blind ideology will light the way and show you that -- as long as you hate something irrationally and against any evidence for its beneveloance -- you can call it a travesty when you see something wildly popular creating a healthier environment for everyone while costing essentially zero dollars.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

My favorite English major at work:

"bars could choose not to smoke"

Bars are buildings where people drink. They do not "choose" anything.

"This seems like a market failure."

The smoking ban in bars is a "market"?

"Bar owners don't want big groups of people who are going to take up three tables for an hour and a half while nursing one white wine spritzer apiece."

That depends. If the joint is empty, I imagine owners would be most grateful for them.

"In a competitive equilibrium, they couldn't afford to go non-smoking because they'd lose their most profitable customers to all the other bars."

Given that the vast majority of people support the smoking ban, I bet there would be tons and tons of people that would choose to patronize a bar with a smoking ban. And Megan seems to be making all these arguments as if the smoking ban meant smokers couldn't smoke. They just have to step outside to do it, so even then, I doubt a voluntary smoking ban would keep a drinker away from their favorite watering hole.

Sum up:
-Smokers are a minority.

-The vast majority of people support the smoking ban.

but:

-a bar voluntarily adopting a smoking ban without government coercion would lose money because fewer stinking drunks who smoke would show up.

Megan's a genius.

Chad said...

Damn, I think that's the closest I've seen anyone come to basically typing out, "Sure, my ideology is extremely faulty and ill-equipped to provide satisfactory answers to even fairly rudimentary real-world scenarios, but whatchagonnado?"

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