Laws and their unintended consequences
Ah, the Law of Unintended Consequences – what a marvelous thing it is.Here in Aspen, we know all about it. For example, there was the unhappy experience of trying for years to control growth and thereby maintain the town as a simple little ski village perched on the west side of the Continental Divide.That didn’t work, because the law of supply and demand is stronger, and wealthy people decided early on that Aspen was a nice place to have a vacation home, no matter what the cost.So, the only real consequence of Aspen’s growth controls was to prevent the construction of an adequate supply of housing that workers could afford, while the wealthy went about their business of buying up just about everything with a roof and driving up the cost of real estate to a level that probably surprised even them. Oh, to be sure, Pitkin County and Aspen have done a better job than most in subsidizing a stock of “affordable housing” that allows at least some of the working class to live close to their jobs and to all the perceived benefits of living in a resort town. But the simple fact is, it’s not enough, and never will be, although there is no way of knowing now if there ever was a way to do it better.Or take the decades-long effort to hold the Colorado Department of Highways at bay and prevent construction of a four-lane highway up the valley, which local officials feared would encourage ever-rising traffic levels and bring all the attendant ills of urban-style congestion, pollution and tension.That didn’t work, either. All you have to do is drive up Highway 82 today and the point is driven home on many levels, but most immediately and forcefully in the realization that rush hour here is as nasty as it is anywhere else. And once again, it is the working stiffs that have suffered and continue to suffer the most.Now the state is dealing with that same law, this time with regard to the enactment of the recently effective smoking ban in public places.We don’t know yet, of course, whether the economic dislocation predicted by restaurant, bar and other business owners across the state will really materialize. But we can be certain that, whatever does happen, it won’t be the way the state legislature expected it to be.What has happened, according to news reports, is that the state has realized that in enacting the ban, the legislature has put a squeeze on the state’s revenue stream, in the form of the “tobacco tax” that feeds a state fund for health programs and other initiatives. The number-crunchers believe the revenues from that tax, which generated more than $188 million in 2005, could fall by nearly 7 percent.According to the state’s chief economist, Mike Mauer, that could mean shaving nearly $11 million from “health care coverage for thousands of Coloradans, anti-smoking campaigns and care for breast and cervical cancer patients.” Mauer reportedly based his calculations on “the experience of states with similar bans,” according to news reports.Unnamed “other” commentators, presumably those who fostered the smoking ban legislation, say the looming decline in tobacco revenues could be explained away by, say, an overall decline in the number of smokers in the state. But if the state cuts its funding for anti-smoking advertisements, isn’t it just as likely that the smoking population will grow? The historical effectiveness of such campaigns is ambiguous, but it seems logical that a reduction of the campaign would translate into more smokers.And that, it would seem, would be the antithesis of the anti-smoking zealots’ purported goal.I still maintain that laws such as Colorado’s smoking ban do little good, since people generally will indulge in their vices regardless of laws that make criminals of them.What really would make sense, as I’ve noted before, is for the government to truly regulate the tobacco industry, by preventing cigarette makers from stuffing cigarettes with poisonous and addictive additives and fillers.Then, if people insist on inhaling, at least they’ll know what it is that’s burning at the tip of their chosen brand, and maybe the choice to smoke or not to smoke will be more of their own will at work, rather than either a mad chemist bent on increasing profits or a government bureaucrat bent on increased control of everything we do.John Colson can be reached at email@example.com
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A recent survey of Aspen residents shows that people are happy here, feel safe but are financially insecure.