Let the Market Mantra Die & Save Yourselves!

I’ve got an itch and it really needs to be scratched. The right wing mantra, “let the market decide” is a glib one-liner that the politically minded hears quite often these days. It’s the republican solution to everything from health care to smoking bans. Now, when concerning health care, I’m for single payer and against the corporate socialism masked in good will and commonly referred to as ObamaCare. A smoking ban in public places, however, is one example of legislative action the state of Pennsylvania has gotten right, I think.

Taken from the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association’s website: “On June 13, 2008, Governor Ed Rendell signed the Clean Indoor Air Act. This Act prohibits smoking in most public areas and workplaces, protecting the majority of citizens in Pennsylvania from tobacco smoke. On September 10, 2008, the new law will take full effect everywhere in the state except for in the City of Philadelphia, which will be permitted to preserve its existing local smoking ban – the Clean Indoor Air Worker Protection Law.”

I did not do any research on Philly, but I’ve come to understand that usually when state governments allow local governments to maintain a law in the wake of statewide legislation, it’s because the local government’s current law exceeds expectations, but I digress.

There was a time, not too long ago, that saw me accepting this overwhelmingly baseless assertion–let the market decide!–despite holding progressive views. It made sense; if non-smokers don’t want to smell like a pack of cancer sticks, they’ll talk with their wallets and force bar owners (in particular) to make a decision that determines which customer is more important to the survival of their business: the smoker with 19 other friends, or the non-smoker with 79. Of course, I’m referring to the percentage of smokers vs non-smokers. In fact, I found an article that claims the percentage of smokers in America has even declined to below the 20% mark, sitting at 19.8% according to WebMD.

So what does “let the market decide!” really mean? Sounds like an endorsement of boycotts, but I don’t buy its effectiveness. Seriously, you’re telling me that after working all week, the majority of the adult population that would like to go out for drinks or head to a restaurant for a nice meal on a Friday or Saturday night (and maybe a glass or two of beer and wine) without the harmful interference of tobacco smoke should have to organize, engage in a boycott and monetarily inform the market that they’re “Mad as hell, and [they’re] not going to take it anymore!”?

I agree, that’s nuts! And you’re certainly bonkers if you think everything the government does and everything the majority wants are two mutually exclusive ideas. Sometimes they are (being molested by the TSA and being detained indefinitely without being charged with a crime are a few examples that come to mind), but in the case of the Pennsylvania smoking ban and others across the U.S., the state government got it right. Hmm, maybe it’s the Fed that we only need to worry about.

Really though, “let the market decide!” is a tough one to sell to me. At the very least, how does it read? There could be a host of reasons a bar or restaurant owner is seeing a decline in clientele and sales. Maybe his beer selection sucks. Maybe her food is crap. Who knows? One thing is for sure, if I’m a restaurant owner and I start to doubt my cook due to a loss in sales, I don’t ban smoking, I find a new cook!

To be fair and totally honest, though, maybe the market actually has decided to a degree, or maybe it’s just that owners of Pennsylvania establishments have finally “got it”: that the health of the majority of one’s customers is directly related to whether one’s business thrives or not, and that there’s no reason why a minority of people who choose to negatively impact their health by way of smoking should be able to externalize those detrimental effects on to people who’ve chosen not to do so. Yeah, we’re both at a bar, Joe Camel, but my drinking doesn’t effect you or anyone else (unless of course I drive drunk and kill an innocent person or I talk incessantly and tell boring stories while sloppily quaffing a few too many pints).

Note: If you’re a resident of Pennsylvania, you might already know that the smoking ban law states that smoking is still permitted in establishments that report less than 20% food sales. I’m willing to bet that there are a number of bars that fit in that category and have still decided to disallow smoking inside their walls. Look at the clock…it’s time we let the logic decide!

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