Vice Squad
Thursday, October 23, 2003
Smoking Bans, continued

Will Baude of Crescat Sententia is no fan of legal bans on smoking in
restaurants. Will prefers a market-based solution to the potential
"problem" of restaurant smoking: "Wouldn't we expect some businesses
to allow employee smoking (while on the job), then specialize in
hiring smokers, while other businesses disallow employee smoking and
specialize in hiring anti-smokers? Those workers who are more
flexible (willing to work with or without the smoke) could reap
the tiny benefit of extra job flexibility, just as workers who
are indifferent to what hours they work have more options
available to them by working night or days as available?"

Professor Stephen Bainbridge of UCLA also was kind enough to bring
my attention to his own post on smoking bans. He, too, favors a
market-based approach. Prof. Bainbridge argues that you shouldn't
be allowed to foist your smoke on captive audiences, but for
establishments (such as restaurants) patronized voluntarily by informed
folks, the government has no business dictating the smoking
(or rather, non-smoking) policy: "...restaurants are clearly places
in which private ordering can work and in which government
intervention is unnecessary."

I concur in the result, I guess -- I am against restaurant smoking
bans -- but I am not ready to fully join the judgment. Maybe markets
and private ordering "work," but the issue is how well they work. In
general, how well they work depends upon lots of factors, including
the rationality of decisions. If people routinely "undercount"
their future health in their current decisions, then some regulations
that increase the representation of future selves might make sense.
As I have argued before, policy should be robust with respect to deviations
from rationality and from other markers for perfect competition; in
particular, policy should work pretty good for folks who are always fully
rational, and it should work pretty good for those folks who have
self-control problems or other occasional lapses from full rationality.
(Incidentally, I think we are all in the latter category.) Smoking
bans are too constraining upon those whose decisions to work in
smoky environments are fully rational -- but many other regulations
would not be so imposing, while being quite beneficial to those who
undervalue (from their own long-term point of view) their future health.

As for customers as opposed to employees, even here, I am not sure that
a rule that sets aside some part of a restaurant as non-smoking is
prima facie a bad idea. Again, such a requirement would be a bad idea
if markets were perfectly competitive (and folks were rational). But
markets are never perfectly competitive. After a long day's journey to
a small town, the costs of going to a different restaurant because you
can't breathe in the first one you enter can be significant. More
generally, the knowledge that I won't have to do that (assuming that
secondary smoke is a big problem for me -- it actually isn't --) in
any town to which I travel is maybe worth quite a bit. And the fact that
I won't get turned away because of my race, religion, sex, and so on,
is also valuable. Sure, in a good market world there would be another
restaurant next door willing to serve my kind, but we don't all live
in that world.

Let me reiterate that I feel a bit silly with this long post,
because by and large I agree with the Baude and Bainbridge analyses!

For earlier Vice Squad musings on smoking bans, please see here
and especially here.

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