Monday, October 13, 2008

Government Failure: The Economics of the UMD Smoking Ban

Brooke Naland, a student at UMD, wrote a nice opinion article that appeared recently in the University's Statesman about the campus smoking ban. The article's use of sound economics is commendable. For example:
You may or may not have noticed, but campus doesn't look very pretty in certain parts. Cigarette butts cover the ground in areas where smokers go to smoke, because there's nowhere to dispose of their butts.
She is referring in this segment to the law of unintended consequences. The ban led to an increase in the amount of pollution, exactly the opposite of the intended outcome.

In another segment she says:
I know that in theory people aren't supposed to be smoking here in the first place, but let's face it. Addiction is a strong thing, and people aren't going to quit if they don't want to. That being said, smokers are going to smoke whether or not there's a rule forbidding them to do so. All this smoking ban has really done is to make some campus employees' jobs more difficult because they have to pick up after people who have nowhere to throw their butts away.
She refers here to the benefit-cost analysis of enforcement. As in the case of the Prohibition, enforcement can become a bigger social problem than the problem that it's trying to address. This is a typical example of government failure, where government overregulation leads to inferior social outcomes.

There's more:

... The purpose of making public buildings, and the average 25-foot area surrounding entrances and windows, smoke-free was due to health concerns associated with second-hand smoke.

I am in full support of this idea. However, when you look past the health concern, a person does, in the state of Minnesota, have the right to smoke. After all, it isn't illegal to use tobacco. If the University wants to create designated smoking areas, I certainly won't argue against it. However, making the entire campus smoke-free just doesn't make sense.

We can find two sound economic principles here. First, it makes use of marginal analysis. The previous regulation had yet addressed the problem satisfactorily, therefore additional restrictions should be expected to have marginal costs that are much higher than their marginal benefits.

Second, there is the question of freedom, one of the greatest gifts that humanity can give itself. As wonderfully summarized by Mill:
Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.
It means that, as long as the smoker is not bothering anybody else, nobody should have the right to interfere with the smoker's choices. Alternatives to this idea can be described in the best case as paternalism and in the worst case as authoritarianism.

Brooke, congratulations for an excellent piece of writing.

No comments: