Walter E. Williams
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The most fundamental principle of economics is the law of demand, which postulates that the higher the cost of a behavior, the less people will do of it, while the lower the cost, the more people will do of it. The law of demand applies to any behavior, and I'm going to apply it to anti-smoking behavior. First, let's get the health issue out of the way because it has no relevancy to the particular principle under examination, which is how people respond to the cost of something.

The cost to nonsmokers to impose their will on smokers, say, in a restaurant, bar or airplane, is zero, or close to it. They just have to get the legislature to do their bidding. When the cost of something is zero, there's a tendency for people to take too much of it. You say, "Williams, in my book, there can never be too much smoke-free air!" Here's a little test. Say your car's out of gas and stuck in a blizzard. You wave me down for assistance. I say, "I'll be glad to give you a lift to safety, but I'm smoking in my car." How likely is it that you'll turn down my assistance in an effort to avoid tobacco smoke? You might be tempted to argue, "That's different." It's not different at all. The cost of a smoke-free environment is not what you're willing to pay.

Say you don't permit smoking in your house. When I visit, I offer to pay you $100 for each cigarette you permit me to smoke. Instantaneously, I've raised the cost of your maintaining a smoke-free environment. Retaining smoke-free air in your home costs the sacrifice of $100. Of course, I could offer you higher amounts, and economic theory predicts that at some price, you'll conclude your 100 percent smoke-free air isn't worth it.

Air that's either 100 percent smoke-filled or 100 percent smoke-free is probably sub-optimal. At zero prices there will either be too much smoking or too little smoking. The problem in our society is that laws have created too much smoke-free air. To a large degree, it's the fault of smokers, who haven't created a cost to smoke-free air.

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Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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