Freeman Essay #13: “The Nanny State”

by Don Boudreaux on December 27, 2017

in Freeman, Health, Hubris and humility, Nanny State, Regulation

Work on a major legal settlement with tobacco companies grabbed headlines in 1997.  In the September 1997 issue of the Freeman, I expressed my dissatisfaction with some of the presumptions on which this settlement was being built.  My essay is below the fold.

I’ve never smoked. I even dislike being near lit cigarettes. (Cigar and pipe-smoke don’t bother me.) Moreover, I’m sure that smoking is addictive and unhealthy. Nevertheless, the ballyhooed “tobacco settlement” announced in June leaves a taste in my mouth far more foul than would be left by choking my way through an entire carton of unfiltered cigarettes.

The foulest feature of government’s long-running harassment of the tobacco industry is the elitist presumption that tens of millions of Americans are too dimwitted to be trusted with their own fates. This presumption follows from the belief that “Big Tobacco” profits by selling goods to people who really don’t want to buy what they buy.

Tobacco companies are portrayed as enjoying boundless powers to warp the judgment of all but the most perspicacious souls. Smokers smoke only because each encountered once too often the Marlboro man’s rugged visage or a billboard showing Joe Camel’s imminent success at scoring with the jazz-club’s most fetchin’ camel-babe. These brushes with Madison Avenue sorcery cripple people’s self-preservation faculties. Government (the argument concludes) must intervene on smokers’ behalf to punish “Big Tobacco,” for no earthly force except the state has the fortitude or wisdom to rescue citizens from the spell of such a mighty demon.

In short, popular sentiment against tobacco companies holds that Americans cannot make sensible choices for themselves.

But on what evidence does this dogma rest? Merely showing that cigarette smoking is both addictive and increases smokers’ chances of contracting fatal illnesses does not prove that smoking is irrational. Smoking has costs, to be sure, just as almost all of life’s activities have costs. But smoking also benefits smokers. Non-smokers’ failure to appreciate these benefits no more proves that smoking is without benefits than does a bachelor’s failure to appreciate the benefits of marriage prove that marriage is without benefits.

Of course, anti-smoking zealots cravenly deny their puritanical busy-bodiness. Instead, anti-smoking snobs issue all manner of ad hoc excuses in attempts to manufacture popular support for their fanatical crusade. In addition to the tired refrain that tobacco advertising hypnotizes vast numbers of otherwise sane folk, the anti-smoking lobby regularly shrieks that “children must be protected!” or that “secondhand smoke kills, too!” or that “smokers’ health-care expenses are a cost to us all!”

Let’s examine each of these excuses for expanding government power.

“Children must be protected!” Well, obviously. But families, not governments, are the proper source of protection from most of life’s pitfalls. Government’s job in a free society is to police against violence and theft rather than to be an antidote for each of life’s innumerable imperfections. It’s up to families to instill those values that help children avoid life’s perils. Outside of its legitimate domain of policing against violence, government is staggeringly klutzy. Entrusting it with the all-important but delicate task of molding children’s character makes no more sense than entrusting a barroom bouncer to perform laser surgery on your eyes.

Not only will government fare worse than parents at keeping children clear of life’s tempting dangers, it will simultaneously fail to treat adults as adults. Forget that banning cigarette advertising in the name of protecting children necessarily also bans such advertising for adults. More ominous is the threat that adults’—including parents’—actions will be ever more closely controlled by government on the grounds that adults influence children. With billions of dollars poured hysterically into anti-smoking campaigns “to protect kids,” is it plausible that government will not deal heavy-handedly with parents and other adults whose actions diverge from the official message issued from Washington?

Government is either a nanny for none or a nanny for all.

“Secondhand smoke kills!” Scientific data undermine this assertion. But let’s suppose that secondhand smoke does increase non-smokers’ risks of serious illness. Would government regulation then be justified? No. Owners of private buildings have strong incentives to make appropriate trade-offs. If enough smokers wanted “smoking” restaurants, owners would supply them. Non-smokers would be free to avoid such restaurants. Likewise, if enough non-smokers wanted smoke-free restaurants (as they surely would if secondhand smoke truly were hazardous) owners would supply them. In fact, a world spared one-size-fits-all government regulation would feature a wide variety of options for both smokers and non-smokers. Different non-smokers each with different tolerances for the risks and unpleasantness of secondhand smoke would each choose what amounts of secondhand smoke to encounter. The case for regulation built upon secondhand smoke’s alleged health risks is feeble—feeble, that is, unless one resorts to the paternalistic canard that non-smokers, like smokers, are too witless to do what’s good for them.

“Smokers’ health-care expenses are a cost to us all!” This increasingly popular anti-smoking battle cry is correct only insofar as health care is collectivized. Without government-subsidized and regulated health care, smokers’ medical expenses would not be unloaded on non-smokers and taxpayers. To the extent that non-smokers’ health-care costs (or taxes used to fund government-subsidized health care) are higher because smokers smoke, the best solution is to de-collectivize healthcare funding.

Another problem with justifying harassment of tobacco companies on grounds that smoking increases non-smokers’ expenses is that it proves far too much. Consider a good Samaritan who saves the life of a stranger severely injured in an auto wreck. Without the Samaritan’s help, the stranger would have died. But because of the Samaritan’s intervention, the stranger lives (say) another three years—years spent, however, undergoing expensive government-subsidized medical treatments. The Samaritan caused taxpayers’ health-care costs to rise. Should government then sue the Samaritan for increasing taxpayers’ health-care costs? Of course not. The alleged principle allowing government (in the name of taxpayers) to sue tobacco companies because smoking increases taxpayers’ burdens is not itself sufficient grounds for penalizing tobacco companies.

But as with the secondhand-smoke argument, facts deny that smoking increases taxpayers’ costs of subsidizing collectivized health care. Precisely because smokers are more likely to die earlier than non-smokers—and because medical expenses are highest for the very old—smoking may actually reduce the amounts that taxpayers pay to fund collectivized medicine.

I have my own proposed tobacco settlement. Let’s recognize that smoking is voluntary. Let smokers enjoy their cigarettes, and let tobacco companies be regulated only by the market by putting an end to government’s odious molestation of smokers and tobacco companies.

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