Over at EconLog, Scott Sumner wonders why smokers don’t seem to have the lobbying clout of other special interest groups. Considering the number of smokers in the U.S. remains in the tens of millions, you’d think we’d hear more complaining about the sky-high taxes on cigarettes that exist in several states (he notes that one pack a day would equal $1,600 per year in Massachusetts).
A fair question, but here’s an example of where economics alone just isn’t enough to answer this question. Go talk to some smokers. You’ll find that many of them want to quit. They think smoking is unhealthy and want government to discourage people from smoking. Most of my smoker friends think like this. In fact, two in five of all smokers even think higher taxes on cigarettes are justified!
I’ve written before about how economics, specifically public choice, can be arrogant—how economists too often make the subtle but fatal leap from saying “people respond to incentives” to claiming with near-certainty to what incentives people will respond and how they will act. Assuming that smokers want to lobby for lower taxes on cigarettes is one such jump. Not every group of people sharing some interest constitutes a cohesive “special interest group,” nor is everyone targeted by a new tax increase going to lobby against, or even oppose, that tax. Few real-world “interest groups,” I think, fit neatly into the Public Choice model. Most good examples I’ve heard are cherry-picked.
In fact, it’s even laughable to me, now that I understand Public Choice, to think that anyone would sit around and wonder why people wouldn’t respond as the Public Choice model predicts. It’s like being totally baffled by the fact that someone would ever turn down a job that entails a massive, one hundred percent raise. Yeah, it happens. Despite what the average economics textbook might imply, not everyone is driven by pecuniary profits alone, or more than by any other motivation. Likewise, not every smoker wants lower taxes on their cigarettes because it means more money in their pockets.
So here’s my answers to Sumner’s question: Smokers just don’t care enough, on average, to lobby for lower taxes on cigarettes. This comes not from what I know about economics or Public Choice, but from my many conversations with smokers living and breathing (no pun intended) in the real-world, here and now.
Economists need to get out more.