Familiar Rantings at the Washington Post

Thom Lambert —  23 October 2006

In January, Washington, D.C. will join the nearly 500 cities nationwide that have thwarted the free market’s accommodation of heterogeneous preferences and have ordered private property owners to forbid their invitees from engaging in otherwise legal behavior. I am speaking, of course, of Washington’s forthcoming smoking ban.

The Washington Post was gracious enough to permit me to explain on its website why I think this is a bad idea. A longer version of the argument — which should be wholly familiar to regular TOTM readers — is here.

(By the way, TOTM’s policies permit this sort of shameless self-promotion.)

Thom Lambert


I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.

5 responses to Familiar Rantings at the Washington Post


    This is a nice summary of your longer piece, Thom. Interested readers really should click through and read the full piece as well.

    John L. Davidson 23 October 2006 at 7:26 pm

    It is so amusing to see the denial that run through all conservative thinking these day–the best is that there are only temporary people, lower class [not like us the elite] which temporary are “exposed to the ultra-hazardous conditions of bartending or waiting tables for only small portions of their lives.” You are right, “Let them eat Cake!” What happened to the incovenient truth that conservative is supposed to equal “pro-life.” Oh, I forgot, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

    And then we have Chris McKinney who says “you would be able to find this information easily in an unregulated market.” Pardon Chris, but we have an unregulated market now and this information is not too be found.

    As for someone to reason that I miss, “the benefit to be had by those who enjoy smoking in bars” my question is what benefit? Anyone who knows anything about the law of damages knows that there is no benefit which has been lost because the smokers are better off not smoking. Damages only arise is you are in a worse position. It is for this very same reason that child abuse hotlines don’t take calls from children complaining that their mothers are making them eat fruits, vegetables and salads and are not limiting their diet to just cookies and ice cream.


    Mr. Davidson:

    I hardly think the purported “waste” inherent in this sort of information gathering justifies regulation. I believe that you would be able to find this information easily in an unregulated market… e.g. by looking at an ad. or by word of mouth. There really seems to be no economic benefit for businesses to hide the ball on this one. I recommend calling the establishment if you are unsure.

    Mr. Lambert:

    I still take issue with the smoking will be cooler if you can’t do it in bars argument. Intoxicating substances, legal and otherwise, lose and gain popularity over time. I doubt there was an increase in booze consumption during the prohibition era. I don’t think beer consumption became cooler when the states decided that the driver of an automobile shouldn’t have an open container.


    John L. Davidson:

    1. Bar owners pay for the cost at least to the extent that workers anticipate the costs of working around smokers. In actual fact, I doubt this cost is very high for most of the sorts of workers being “protected” by such laws: Many are temporary workers exposed to the ultra-hazardous conditions of bartending or waiting tables for only small portions of their lives; I doubt all of them work in such noxious conditions all of the time anyway; and only a portion of those that do will develop medical problems anyway. But to the extent there is a cost, workers must be compensated for it, or else they are being under-paid relative to other opportunities and will work elsewhere.

    2. Efficient?!?!?!? I think that’s very unlikely. A far less costly, available and effective solution (the existence of which precludes a ban from being optimal) to the “waste” problem you identify would be required disclosure. Maybe smoking establishments should be required to have the indication in their name, like Clyde’s, ASP (all smoking permitted) or The Capitol Grill, CSO (cigar smoking only). That should take care of all of that wasted energy.

    3. The biggest problem with your analysis, such as it is, is that you leave out entirely the other side of the ledger — the benefit to be had by those who enjoy smoking in bars. The efficient solution would maximize social welfare, taking account of both the costs and the benefits. It wouldn’t just identify some harm and set about trying to remove it. “Read Coase 1937, sometime.” I suppose it might be that no public smoking–no choice and no opportunity for arbitrage–is the efficient solution even taking account of the benefits, but it seems unlikely.

    John L. Davidson 23 October 2006 at 8:30 am

    Two things can be said about the piece.

    First, most of it is just made-up. For example, bar owners do not pay for the costs of exposure of workers to 2nd hand smoke, for those costs truly don’t even arise until years later. If this statement were true, employers of workers working in toxic chemicals in China or the the beaches of Alang in India would be paying for the costs of what toxic chemical exposure was doing to their workers. Workers take the best available job which is different from the best available safe job.

    Second, like any conservative, never confuse this writer with the facts. Given the high demand by customers for non-smoking environments, has anyone ever seen a bar or restaurant adverstise that is is non-smoking? Why not? Concerted action. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize the lock-in effect obtained by bars/restaurants that don’t compete. If you arrive at a business only to find that it is a smoke filled den . . . the customer faces a loss of having to leave and search elsewhere for a non-smoking establishment. This to those of us who understand economics is known as a transaction cost, which leads to the last and principal reason to ban smoking and that is efficiency.

    The best reason for the regulation is its efficiency. Those who worship law and economics and efficiency at least out to admit when efficiency trumps their pandering.

    A smoking ban is a good example of the efficiency of regulation. W/O a smoking ban the consumer has to waste time, energy, and effort better spent elsewhere trying to find a non-smoking establishment, which is truly an economic waste, producing no economic benefit. A ban eliminates that waste.

    Said differently, there is a cost to gathering information, sometime called transaction cost–read Coase 1937, sometime. By banning smoking, transaction costs are greating reduced for the consumer. This also attacks the other part of the problem–free riding. By not advertising, owners of bars, etc., free ride. They shift a real cost to the consumer who is looking for a non-smoking experience.

    In sum, not only does the smoking ban make economic sense, it serves as a good illustration why regulation often works and works well.