Thank You For Smoking

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and a slightly more powerful bottom group—but why in world would we expect bottom incomes to go up if those laws were repealed?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.


  1. Jimmy Reefercake (@JimmyReefercake) July 7, 2012 at 5:46 pm | #

    studies show that pot smokers are great employees. put that in your pipe and smoke it.

  2. Rev. Colin J. Cameron July 7, 2012 at 8:46 pm | #

    Oddly, perhaps, I was reminded of the reading in my sixth grade reading group, which was about a family in England who were lured by deception into workhouse slavery. I also recall reading about the conditions of miners in the eastern US, circa the late 19th century, who were paid in scrip; had to buy their work tools from the company at usurious rates (when they broke them, which was often), were required to shop at the company store for all their goods, rented company homes (and thus could be evicted for any reason), were tried in company courts, and were chattel slaves in a very real sense.

    I’ve only recently become fully cognizant of the underlying aristocratic impulses that mark pro-business attitudes, so I’m happy to see this topic. It ‘s ironic that the roots of the “free market” often lie in the practice of slavery.

    • jonnybutter July 9, 2012 at 9:42 am | #

      It ‘s ironic that the roots of the “free market” often lie in the practice of slavery.

      The unanswered question is whether slavery (of various forms) was necessary for the explosive growth of wealth in the West in the 18th and 19th centuries. Right libertarians tend to say ‘yes’, but I don’t see how they can know that. We know that this wealth creation *was* a product of slavery, but it’s a counterfactual worth posing, viz: could great, but slightly less great, wealth have been created without slavery? We’re talking about categorical differences: would the wealth created without slavery, or without near-slavery, be categorically the same as that produced with it?

      People on the Right squint at the situation and boringly insist that, in this case, history is not really contingent, and some kind of slavery/hierarchy must always be with us, like the poor.

  3. Geoff July 8, 2012 at 5:39 pm | #

    Can help thinking that this might be an interesting footnote to the work place tyranny that takes place in North America:

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