David R. Henderson  

Will Only the Criminals Have Tans?

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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.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
RPLong writes:

Thank you for writing about this. This issue is not nearly as trivial as it appears. Photo-therapy is important for people with e.g. plaque psoriasis.

Imagine someone suffering from plaque psoriasis who happens to be under the age of 18, but who wishes to minimize his/her health care costs by self-medicating with photo-therapy. The law makes this impossible.

It's things like this that lawmakers and law supporters forget when they pass these inane laws. There are always unintended consequences.

Alex Godofsky writes:

There is no justification for lobbying Sacramento to place Dr. Krautz's judgment ahead of his fellow citizens who like a tan.

Sure there is; the argument would be "Dr. Krautz's judgment is better". The argument may even be true!

Now, if you want to move the goalposts and argue from natural liberty, fine, but no one who doesn't already agree with you will be convinced by it.

Eric Larson writes:

Alex,
Read "justification".

David C writes:

I think 18 is just a convenient number and the boundary should be much lower, but I'm not against states prohibiting children from participating in certain dangerous activities that older people are allowed to themselves. It might also be prudent for the state to prohibit the mentally disabled from engaging in certain activities. I'm curious, you seem to suggest parents should be allowed to prohibit their children from using tanning beds. Why is it acceptable for parents to infringe on their children's rights but not the state? Many parents make very poor decisions regarding their children, so that can't be the sole reason.

Ted Levy writes:

David C,

The reason I strongly object to the State doing what, superficially, it seems we all accept parents doing is that parental rule is decentralized. What's good for the Smith's daughter is unacceptable for the Brown's son. As a result, a competitive market develops in parental rules: "But it's all right with Johnny's parents down the street!" "You don't live with Johnny's parents. But how about this..."

Nothing like this happens in the political marketplace that mandates or prohibits such daily actions of living as sun tanning. EVERYone under 18 is VERBOTEN; everyone over 18 is ad libitum. This is hard to justify on grounds of logic, and intolerable when it carries with it the force of law.

joeftansey writes:

The free market legal system for children's rights is horrible though. Competition between parents is limited because Kids can basically only complain. And even they aren't agitating for better policy because they are below the age of consent (whatever that is). And then the majority of parents are totally lousy and aren't educated about UV rays etc.

So everyone in the child-law market is incompetent, competition is extremely limited, and the goal is to make good (very) long term decisions. K.

This doesn't mean I think the state should get involved, but it doesn't mean intervention is illegitimate. I do agree that the age of consent should be lower than 18, but most of us would feel safe stopping a kindergartener from tanning 3 hours a day. Or using steroids. Or something similar that adults can do but children can't.

Rey de Vaqueiros writes:

Seems different from Bastiat's Candle story to me - if oncologists are like candle makers, they'd want everyone to go to these tanning salons and get cancer (i don't know if they cause cancer, just assuming it for sake of arguement). It is in the oncologists' interest to send the kids to tanning salons. To mangle a Robert Solow quote, everything seems to remind Mr.Henderson of Bastiat ;)

Joe Cushing writes:

Many people, myself included, have used tanning as a safety measure. Getting a tan before taking a trip to a sunny place is a smart move than can prevent a cancer causing burn. Sure, one can use sunblock, I did, but sunblock is not perfect. People can miss spots and it can wear off more quickly than it gets replaced. I spent 4 hours snorkeling in the Asian Pacific and sunblock only lasts 80 min in water. I was fine.

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