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March 25, 2014 11:30 AM Reason, Hit & Miss: Smoking Edition

By Mark Kleiman

Libertarians, like stopped clocks, are right twice a day. Jacob Sullum at Reason Hit & Run has a fine time taking down an astoundinly silly piece in the New York Times, which uses the fact that nicotine is toxic in large doses to claim vendors are “selling a poision by the barrel.” Of course e-cigarette “juice” comes with some risk of accidental poisoning, but so does gasoline. And gasoline doesn’t have any promise of eliminating hundreds of thousands of smoking deaths per year.

I’d say tha the NYT piece reads like parody of public-health hysteria, but in fact the fringes of the public-health community do a form of self-parody beyond the capacity even of The Onion. (Had you heard that people who don’t use e-cigarettes in order to quit cigarettes don’t quit cigarettes? And that therefore e-cigarettes aren’t helpful in quitting smoking? Srsly.)

Score one for the libertarians.

On the other hand, another Hit-and-Runner furiously denounces the Maryland legislature for raising tobacco taxes, a demonstrably effective means of reducing smoking, because a predictable side effect will be increased smuggling from states with lower taxes. Libertarian conclusion: cigarette taxes are evil. Alternative conclusion: cigarette taxation should be a federal rather than a state matter, or alternative the federal government should provide incentives for high-tax states to moderate their levies and for low-tax states to raise theirs. After all, it takes two to make a price gradient, and the health benefits of coordinating on higher rather than lower taxes are obvious. (Jon Caulkins and I argue for doing something to protect poor elderly addicted smokers from the personal-budget impact of higher taxes, but of course as long as e-cigarettes are taxed at lower rates than tobacco cigarettes they have a self-help alternative.) Of course it’s all due to “politicians’ appetite for other people’s money,” as if citizens didn’t want public services or as if public services didn’t have to be paid for. Since, outside of Libertarianland, we have to tax something, why not tax things we want less of (bad habits, pollution, and congestion) rather than things we want more of, such as work?

What’s ultimately boring about libertarianism is the utter predictability of most of its adherents. You don’t have to ask them what they think about an issue, or bother them with facts: all you have to do is compare the issue with their prejudices.

Footnote Sullum rather lost his temper when I pointed out that his over-the-top attacks on President Obama’s cannabis policies reflect the partisan bias of the people who pay the bills at Reason.com. But when the House of Representatives passed a bill that in effect demanded that the Obama Administration crack down on cannabis legalization in Washington State and Colorado, Sullum criticized the bill (while of course piling on examples of what he taxes to be the Obama Administration’s lawlessness). But he never quite manages to say that what the House Republicans unanimously voted for amounts to a demand that people go to federal prison for selling cannabis in states that have chosen to regulate the drug rather than prohibiting it. This is an issue on which the Administration and all but five of the House Democrats came down on Sullum’s side of the question, while all the House Republicans came down on the other side. But somehow that issues in an even-handed denunciation of “partisanship” rather than a clear statement that anyone who wants more liberal laws about cannabis ought to punish the Republicans by voting Democratic, or at least staying home.

Note also the difference in Sullum’s language. He turned his own misunderstanding of the Controlled Substances Act, and the court cases interpreting that act, into an accusation that the President “had not read” the law. Sullum treats the House Republicans much more gently; their treatment of drug issues is “the weakest part of their case against [Obama].” In fact, of course, it’s Constitutionally illiterate. The Congress passes laws, but the decision to prosecute – or not – resides in the executive branch. Sullum and his colleagues play for the Red Team; that’s their right, and their occupation. The readers of Reason, however, should be aware of the fact, and take what is written there with the requisite complement of sodium chloride.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles.

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