In our Crooked Timber post, Chris Bertram, Alex Gourevitch and I talk about how employers restrict workers’ freedom off the job. In the course of that discussion, we write:
Workers are punished for smoking or drinking in the privacy of their own homes. (How many nanny states have tried that?)
I had wanted to say a bit more about this at the time, but couldn’t figure out an easy way to do it in the post. But thanks to a commenter on a different post over Crooked Timber, I was reminded of the point I wanted to make.
It turns out that four states in the US—California, New York, Colorado, and North Dakota—protect the lawful activity of employees off the job. Only in these four states, in other words, can workers not be penalized by their employer for engaging in activities like politicking for their favorite candidates or causes, marching for (or against) abortion, writing letters to members of Congress, and so on.
29 states, by contrast, explicitly protect the rights of workers to smoke off the job. Thanks to the power of the tobacco lobby, in other words, workers in a majority of states can smoke to their hearts’ content (or discontent), but only in four can they engage, without fear of reprisal, in things like politics and protest.
One more point. Many of our critics seem to assume that increasing regulations will lead to a decrease of wealth, which will ultimately lead to a decline in income for those at the bottom. But as the commenter over at that Crooked Timber thread notes, the four states that have the highest level of protection for workers off the job enjoy, on the whole, higher median rates of per capita income than most of the others. These laws have not, says the commenter
produced a lack of income for folks “at the bottom end” in California, Colorado, New York and North Dakota, compared to the rest of the country: they are ranked 9th, 13th, 15th, and 27th respectively in median income. Now this is probably because laws protecting workers’ outside activity are a symptom of a slightly less powerful economic elite and a slightly more powerful bottom group—but why in world would we expect bottom incomes to go up if those laws were repealed? Repeal would be a symptom of an increase in elite power, which generally has a negative effect on bottom-group incomes.