The Perils of Paternalism

Cite this Article
Thomas A. Lambert, The Perils of Paternalism, Truth on the Market (August 28, 2006),

According to Bar None, an op-ed by Jack Turner in today’s NYT, “history shows that, however commendable the reasoning, efforts to control how people drink — or eat, or smoke — tend to backfire.” I’ve made a similar argument in discussing smoking bans.

Advocates of such bans (often citing the work of “norms scholars,” such as Larry Lessig and Dan Kahan) frequently defend the bans on grounds that they alter social norms. The argument is that smoking bans provide a de facto community statement that public smoking is unacceptable and thereby embolden non-smokers to confront smokers who are inconveniencing them. Facing heightened public hostility toward their habits, smokers are likely to revise their preferences regarding smoking. Thus, by making smoking more socially costly, bans reduce the number of smokers.

Of course, this is a good thing only if actual social utility is increased by reducing the incidence of smoking. Ban advocates assume that it is for the obvious reason that smoking carries serious health risks. But ban advocates generally are not in a position to judge the cost side of reducing smoking, for they do not know the degree of utility smokers experience by smoking. Smokers themselves, who these days are aware of the risks of smoking, appear to believe that the benefits they experience from the activity outweigh the costs. It is thus not at all clear that social welfare will be enhanced by eliminating smoking.

But even if it were clear that society would be better off with less smoking, this sort of “norm management” may be a bad idea. Sweeping smoking bans may actually increase the incidence of smoking. A large percentage of smokers acquire the habit at a young age, and they frequently do so because smoking is “cool.â€? Smoking is cool, of course, because it’s rebellious. The harder anti-smoking forces work to coerce people into stopping smoking, and the more they engage the government and other establishment institutions in their efforts, the more rebellious — and thus the “cooler” — smoking becomes. As an empirical matter, then, it is not clear whether sweeping smoking bans — highly intrusive regulatory interventions — actually reduce the incidence of smoking in the long run.

Nazi Germany may provide an example of this sort of “norm backlash.” According to a report in the British Medical Journal, “Germany had the world’s strongest antismoking movement in the 1930s and early 1940s, supported by Nazi medical and military leaders worried that tobacco might prove a hazard to the race.” It bombed:

German smoking rates rose dramatically in the first six years of Nazi rule, suggesting that the propaganda campaign launched during those early years was largely ineffective. German smoking rates rose faster even than those of France, which had a much weaker anti-tobacco campaign. German per capita tobacco use between 1932 and 1939 rose from 570 to 900 cigarettes a year, whereas French tobacco consumption grew from 570 to only 630 cigarettes over the same period.

While this post hoc evidence is admittedly anecdotal, it’s consistent with Turner’s point that paternalism tends to backfire. Norm managers proceed at their own peril.