Dont Ban Smoking in Public Housing

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Instead, ban the governments role in telling us how to live.

So the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has proposed a new rule that would ban all forms of smoking in public housing across the nation. If adopted, the ban would go into effect early next year. The agency says its acting out of health concerns about second-hand smoke, but lets just call out this plan for what it is: paternalism of the worst kind, aimed squarely at managing the lower orders.

If youre poor or unlucky enough to be stuck in public housing, goes HUDs logic, then you have to play by the governments rules, even when it comes to using a legal product whose production and marketing was subsidized for decades by that same government. The proposed ban is ultimately predicated upon the notion that poor people are too dumb to make smart life decisions. As a professional libertarian (yes, its as awful a job as it sounds), I think that sort of attitude should also equally outrage liberals and conservatives. Rather than being adopted, the proposal should spur a larger conversation about how best to adminster other sorts of programsfrom food stamps to the mortgage-interest deductionthat try to engineer our behavior to suit the whims of our leaders.

As The New York Times reports, the ban would affect more than a million households across the country and render not just private units and indoor common areas smoke-free but also create 25-foot-wide smoke-free perimeters around housing units, administrative offices, and the like. Electronic cigarettes would be exempt at the start, but given the anti-scientific animus against e-cigarettes by activists and governments at all levels, its only a matter of time before public-housing vapers would join smokers in being forced to stand outside while puffing away, ringing projects like modern-day lepers.

The one good thing about the ban is that its probably unenforceable in practice. As one disgruntled public-housing resident told the Times, You dont know whats going on in peoples apartmentsWhat are they going to do, smell your apartment? HUD officialsand prohibitionists generallysay the health benefits outweigh any costs to individual freedom. Not only will it cut down on how much people smoke, they say, it will reduce the effects of second-hand smoke and allergic reactions to smoke. Well, maybe, though the effect of second-hand smoke on immediate family members, much less the smell of smoke wafting through interior walls and doors on neighbors, is far from settled.

But such arguments presume that its the governments role to help us be better people, especially when it comes to behaviors or decisions that leaders have decided are bad for us. If HUD wanted to respect the choices of smokers and the preferences of non-smokers, it could always figure out a way to create smoking and non-smoking housing sections, the way that restaurants used to (before being prohibited by various state and local laws) and hotels still manage to do.

Some supporters, especially conservatives suspect of public housing recipients on principle and liberals worried about poor peoples health, might argue that if you dont want to follow the governments rules, then dont be on government assistance. Thats always an odd argument for conservatives to make, given how often they decry state-based social engineering in virtually any other situation. Should the state get to call all the shots at private colleges simply because Pell grants and government-subsidized loans help pay students way?

Indeed, why should the government get to condition behavior simply because the government is footing part of the bill? Liberals were rightly aghast when former Republican presidential candidate Gov. Scott Walker floated the idea of proactively drug-testing all welfare and unemployment recipients in his home state of Wisconsin. Similar programs in other states such as Missouri were not only found to be completely cost-ineffective as a practical matter but unconstitutional as well. If its unconstitutional to blanket-test for illegal substances, it should be even more difficult to dictate the use of legal ones.

Of course, its not just public-housing policy where the government seeks to influence behavior by conditioning its largesse. The federal tax code is chock full of carve-outs and rewards for all sorts of personal behavior, such as having kids or owning a house rather than renting. Although there is no evidence that home owners who deduct mortgage interest are better citizens than renters, they certainly are wealthier. In fact, the interest deduction, which can be used for two residences, goes exclusively to relatively wealthy Americans. In fact, a 2008 study by the conservative Heritage Foundation found that 19 percent of government benefits and services went to members of the top income quintile. You neednt be a hardcore libertarian (though it helps) to find such social engineering and favoritism to be an anathema.

When it comes to food stamps (technically known as SNAP these days), the government refuses to pay for all sorts of products, to steer recipients to ostensibly healthier choices. The net result of giving people electronic benefit (EBT) cards that can only be used to purchase particular foods is a thriving abritrage market in the benefits. According to a 2014 federal study (PDF), for instance, SNAP recipients who want cash routinely use social media sites to sell the cards at a fraction of their face value. In San Antonio, $400 in SNAP money was offered for $240 in cash; in New Jersey, a $200 EBT card was advertised for $100 in cash.

Rather than trying to push the neediest Americans into particular behaviorsbuy a house! have a kid! eat more kale! dont smoke!it would be far more elegant and efficient to simply give them unrestricted cash payments, whether for food or housing. That would eliminate all secondary markets in benefits and minimize the market distortions that inevitably occur in heavily subsidized markets (the favorable treatment of home ownership was one of the factors in the housing bubble). It might even allow us to start having conversations about simultaneously reducing the size of the welfare state while increasing its effectiveness.

Arguably more important, such straight-up cash transfers for low-income Americans would accord them the respect and responsibility they deserve. One of the great insights of 19th-century classical liberal political economists such as John Stuart Mill, John Bright, and T.B. Macaulay was, as George Masons David M. Levys incredible 2001 study How The Dismal Science Got Its Name documents, was that all of useven those of us who were poorshare a common humanity and an ability to be responsible for and directed in our choices. The ways in which low-income families respond when granted more choice in educational opportunities should assuage the fears to the most paternalistic liberal or the most hard-hearted conservative.

And letting public-housing recipients decide whether they want to allow smoking in their apartments might turn out to be a sign weve stopped assuming that if youre poor, youre also dumb.

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