Will Only the Criminals Have Tans?
By David Henderson
My friend, Ted Levy, MD, sent me the following. It was so good that I couldn’t figure out a way to cut it down or choose only a few paragraphs. So here’s the whole thing.
In the 19th century, one of the most lucid of the French economists, Frederic Bastiat, wrote a marvelous text, Economic Sophisms, from which we can still learn much today. It was a series of brief essays devoted to crushing, with wit and reductios, arguments against free trade and in favor of protectionism.
One of his most famous essays was in the form of a petition to the king from the candle-maker’s guild, urging him to block out the Sun, which they saw as unfair competition. Few customers were willing to use their candle products to light their way during those hours the Sun shone, forcing them to dismiss their apprentices–Oh! The jobs lost!!–and impoverishing their trade.
It is a fabulous essay–in both meanings of that term–lampooning those afraid of competition. It came to mind recently when, on listening to the news, I realized the pendulum had fully swung to the opposite apogee. Now it is the Sun, it seems, pleading for and receiving special consideration.
The California legislature has just passed a law prohibiting those under 18 from using tanning beds. It doesn’t prohibit them from tanning naturally, using the Sun. Now it is the Sun being protected from competition!
It turns out I cannot blame the Sun, his minions, agents, or lobbyists, for this transgression of natural liberty. Instead, the blame goes to people like Dr. Michael Krautz, an oncologist quoted on ABC News concerned about the spread of melanoma, a deadly skin cancer whose incidence increases with prolonged exposure to UV radiation. I share Dr. Krautz’s concern over melanoma, but must object to his method of reducing risk, which is no more legitimate than the French candlemakers’ idea of blotting out the Sun. There is no justification for lobbying Sacramento to place Dr. Krautz’s judgment ahead of his fellow citizens who like a tan. The law doesn’t, after all, seek merely to educate. The law isn’t that one must be made aware of the melanoma risk and sign a waiver of liability. It is instead a strict prohibition, taking no account of fellow citizens who say, “I understand the risks and choose to bear them.” Nor can I take seriously an alleged health prohibition against tanning beds for those under 18 when it allows unlimited tanning under Sol’s rays and even allows ad libitum tanning bed use for anyone of voting age, melanoma being a cancer in no way restricted to those under 18.
Dr. Krautz compared the new law to one prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to those under 18. It is a good analogy. For example, the law against cigarettes applies only to purchase, not actual use. Both the tobacco and tanning prohibitions protect against less-than-overwhelming cancer risks (the majority of smokers do not die of lung cancer and the large majority of tanners do not die of melanoma), the cancers that do develop occur, if at all, decades in the future. Neither prohibition engages in anything like a cost-benefit analysis. The idea that people might enjoy smoking or a tan is ignored. Both, in short, are typical nanny-state prohibitions, affecting a minority–teenagers under 18–who are chosen because they can’t vote.
To be sure, I’m not a fan of smoking, or even of excessive tanning, but the meaning of a free society is lost if individuals cannot make these choices on their own. Those under 18 should be guided by family and others concerned about them, not by the State. We have more to lose from an overweening State apparatus than we do from melanoma. As for the Sun, I think it can handle the competition.