Banning E-Cigarette Flavors
By Pierre Lemieux
The state (the whole apparatus of sovereign government) does not reach decisions randomly at some sort of ritual coin-throwing ceremony. Given its claim as an ultimate monopoly of violence and its decision-making technology—in the cases of interest here: majoritarian democracy with its problems of collective action and voters’ rational ignorance—the state will be led, as by an invisible hand, to reach certain decisions and to avoid others. Resisting these built-in biases, if anyhow possible, presumably requires the support of strong non-state institutions and, from those in power, a deep understanding of the issues and problems involved.
As liberal institutions have been undermined by a century of power aggrandizement and as few individuals (but where are they?) in the current US administration have shown any understanding of the stakes, it is not surprising that the American state is continuing its natural drift.
The latest example is the Trump administration’s expected decision to ban e-cigarette flavors, which would be a seamless extension of previous public-health tyranny. I recently reviewed the political economy of this issue in “Consumer Surplus in the FDA’s Tobacco Regulations, with Applications to Nicotine Reduction and E-Cigarette Flavors,” Reason Foundation, June 2019. Are consumers so stupid compared to voters, politicians, and bureaucrats?
The Wall Street Journal (“White House Expected to Ban Vape Flavors Except Tobacco and Menthol,” November 1, 2019) just reminded us that
Mr. Trump in September announced that the FDA would ban the sweet and fruity e-cigarette flavors that are popular with teens, leaving only those flavored like tobacco on the market.
At first sight, such a decision from the Trump administration may look surprising. In all likelihood, the third of registered voters who gave their voices to the current president contains a proportion of smokers and vapers much higher than in the general population. But authoritarian bans form the natural slope of the state. “Why not ban something” is a deep-state reaction that Elizabeth Warren also honors: this is why she is such a good candidate for running the government. To know what the weather is really like on earth—“le vrai temps qu’il fait sur la terre,” to borrow an expression from Saint-Exupéry in Courrier Sud—I suggest that Anthony de Jasay and Bertrand de Jouvenel are required readings.
The well-wisher can find in the current US administration some exceptions to the trend, such as its defense of the Second Amendment, in words not in action (granting that judicial nominations may prove to be weighty actions, but only the future will tell), and attempts, apparently successful thus far, at reducing the net annual flow of regulations (see Clyde Wayne Crews, Ten Thousand Commandments, 2019 Edition, Competitive Enterprise Institute). But more than a new trend, these look like random variations around the secular trend.
On the specific issue of e-cigarette flavors, we may hope that Mr. Trump, in a populist revelation on the road to Damascus, will change his mind. We may hope that, like in Gustave Doré’s painting, he will confront Leviathan, instead of using it for his own personal purposes. But this is most likely wishful thinking.