The magic of politics

Earlier this week I was hanging out at the coffee shop with my friend Joe when a politician walked up to us. “Hey guys,” he said jovially, “You look a little hungry. How would you like a pair of big, tasty burritos?”

“Heck yeah!” I replied.

“Definitely!” said Joe. “How much are you charging?”

“Oh, I don’t charge anything,” said the politician. “All I have to do is wave my hands and through the magic of politics delicious burritos will appear at your table!”

I was a little skeptical, but I watched as the strange politician gestured enchantingly with his hands, took a deep breath, and muttered a secret incantation. Sure enough, within seconds a fresh burrito was sitting on a plate right in front of me. Joe had one, too.

“Gosh, thanks magic politics man,” I said through a mouthful of rice and beans.

“No problem. Enjoy the burritos.” As he walked off into the sunset, he called back over his shoulder, “And remember, vote for me!”

The next day Joe and I went back to the coffee shop hoping the generous politician would show up again. We didn’t see him, but we were approached by an economist. “Hey guys,” he said, “I’m doing some research and I’m wondering if you two would like to help me out. Are you hungry? Do you like burritos?”

“Of course, everyone likes burritos,” Joe answered. “Are you going to magically create some for us?”

“Um, no,” said the economist. “I can’t do that. But I will give you each some money so that you can buy burritos. I’ll even tell you where to get them. If you walk two blocks down the street, there’s a Mexican place with pretty good food. They’re not the best in town, but they’re all right. If you really like burritos, I recommend walking another ten blocks to this little stand that serves the best burritos in all the city. They cost the same, so it’s up to you which one you go to.”

This economist sure knew a lot about Mexican food. Perhaps it was Tyler Cowen? We didn’t ask his name, but Joe and I set off down the street in search of dinner. After two blocks, Joe decided to stop and eat at the nearer, inferior restaurant. “Ok,” I said. “I’m going to keep walking and try this other place. I’ll meet you back at the coffee shop.”

An hour later we returned to the shop and found the economist waiting for us. “How were the burritos?” he asked.

“Mine was pretty good,” Joe replied.

“Mine was fantastic,” I said. “But ten blocks is a long walk. Not to sound ungrateful, but I miss the politician.”

“Yeah, me too,” said Joe. “Why’d you make us do all that walking?”

“Well,” answered the economist, “That politician who gives away free burritos is a very popular guy. When he asks you if you want one, of course you say yes. But I suspect that people don’t really like burritos as much as he thinks they do. So to find out if you guys really like burritos, I had to make them cost you something. In this case, a distance to walk. Even though you both claimed to like them, it’s obvious that Jacob really likes them more because he was willing to walk ten blocks instead of two to get a good one.”

“You’re right,” Joe said. “All things equal, I would have rather had a burger.”

“But,” I interjected, “The politician’s way is still better. His food doesn’t cost anything! He just waves his hands and it appears.”

“Jacob, as a magician, you of all people should recognize that that was just fancy sleight of hand. Your taxes paid for those burritos,” said the economist.

“Wow, how did you know I’m a magician?”

“I’m an economist. I know everything.”

“Impressive,” said Joe.

“Indeed,” answered the economist. “And now I must go. I hope you enjoyed your dinners, and more importantly, that you have learned something tonight. Adios!” With a wave of his cap, the mysterious economist then flew, magically, into the sunset.


For those of you who read all the way through that silly story, I have a confession to make: it didn’t really happen. There was no magical politician, I didn’t eat burritos this week, and I don’t even have a friend named Joe. So why post it? Because I think the logic of the story goes a long way toward explaining why smoking bans are so popular while smokefree bars are not. The politicians promoting smoking bans are no different from the politician offering Joe a free burrito. Even people who dislike smoking just a little bit will support a ban, just as people who like burritos only a little bit will gladly accept a free one. Simply asking non-smokers if they’d prefer a ban doesn’t tell you anything useful about how much they really want it. Since it doesn’t cost them anything, they have no reason not to enthusiastically support it.

To find out if people really demand smokefree spaces you have to offer them some trade-offs. Are they willing to travel a little further to avoid smoke? To go to a slightly more expensive place? To go where the crowds are less hip? If not, then they probably don’t really care about smoking, even if they say they do in the abstract.

Of course, there’s no need to set up experiments to figure this out. The experiment was conducted thousands of times each day among the competing bars and restaurants in, for example, pre-ban DC. The conclusion they reached is that some smokefree establishments can be viable, but that most people either enjoy smoking or tolerate being around it. Owners would probably have continued to shift toward smokefree policies over time, but there’s no good reason to think that the slow trend in that direction was out of touch with actual consumer preferences and needed to be hastened by a ban.

These considerations cease to matter when smoking policies get taken out of the realm of economic trade-offs and into the realm of winner-take-all politics. With a smoking ban on the table, previously tolerant individuals become rabidly anti-smoker. They exaggerate their annoyance with tobacco smoke. Perhaps they even fool themselves about the true extent of their dislike, given that before the ban they made few attempts to find smokefree alternatives to their favorite hangouts. With non-smokers in the majority, they face little opposition to imposing their will on the smoking minority.

And that, in short, is why smoking bans are popular all out of proportion to people’s revealed preferences about smoke exposure.


Tomorrow is the day that England’s comprehensive smoking ban goes into effect. Some recommended reading:

Info on the ban from The Independent.

Tim Harford debunks the argument that smoking creates an economic externality.

Pub declares itself Embassy of Redonda to skirt smoking ban.

Neil Clark declares the death of liberal England.

And if you’re hungry for burritos, here’s some recommendations from Tyler Cowen.


4 thoughts on “The magic of politics”

  1. They exaggerate their annoyance with tobacco smoke. Perhaps they even fool themselves about the true extent of their dislike, given that before the ban they made few attempts to find smokefree alternatives to their favorite hangouts.

    Oh, let’s not start peering into psychological motivations for rational arguments. We can talk all day long about the implications of you desperately wanting to hang around in bars filled with men sucking on small, hard sticks all night, you know.

    The burrito example would be more on-point if, instead of offering burritos, the economist came up to Jacob and Joe and began punching them in the face repeatedly, and suggested that if they really didn’t want to get punched in the face, they would just walk to a place that doesn’t have someone punching them in the face. The principle isn’t how willing the two of them are to find a place where they don’t get punched, it’s whether someone else has the right to be punching them at all. When the politician comes by and promises to use Jacob and Joe’s tax money to make the economist go away, perhaps they would be more appreciative.

  2. By your logic we’d have to ban topless bars, too, for the way they force nudity on the people who choose to patronize them. I suppose you think we should force strippers to the outside of bars, where they can impose their bare breasts on all the passersby.

    Oh, wait, that’s an excellent idea actually. I’m converted to your side!

    (More seriously, I completely agree with Tim Harford’s article linked above, that debunks your argument.)

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