Over the last year I've posted a number of times about the internal struggles between my inner human and my inner economist--and as you know, those are mutually exclusive categories. That's why when I read stories like this I am both happy and troubled:
Separate smoking sections don't cut it: Only smoke-free buildings and public places truly protect nonsmokers from the hazards of breathing in other people's tobacco smoke, says a long-awaited surgeon general's report.
I grew up with a smoker--who eventually quit, ran a marathon and then had half of a lung removed. I smoked for a few years myself--stupid, I know, but graduate school completely messes with your brain. And now, I am as anti-smoking as anyone you will find. I'm in favor of a complete ban on smoking anywhere I might go. But should smoking be banned?
As a classic externality problem, the economic solution says probably not. There is an optimal amount of smoking--that level that provides the maximum social net benefit. Smokers have a net gain from smoking. The problem is, that gain comes at a cost to others. That's an externality.
So now, the surgeon general says second hand smoke should be banned. Isn't that the equivalent of saying that sulfur dioxide should be banned, or car exhaust should be banned? The economist in me says yes, they're the same type of problem and therefore require the same type of solution: get the prices right. Make sure smokers pay the external cost of their smoking and the market will determine the socially optimal level of smoking.
But my inner human counters: No! Smoking is bad and should be banned.
My inner human is wrong...but that's not going to stop him.