Britney's Law: Further Proof That Basic Economics Is a Mystery?

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"We don’t want to put the media out of business, but there has to be some reason when they do their job."

~ L.A. City Councilman Dennis Zine

Apparently the crush of fame is getting to be too much for some celebrities. This has resulted in the suggestion of something colloquially known as "Britney's Law" from lawmakers in California. The existence of a coercive state is, of course, at the root of the supposed problem. My friend and fellow LRC columnist Manuel Lora blogged about this issue recently. Over at The Swamp Land Exile he writes:

Situations such as this one exist due to a lack of property rights. Roads, parks and other areas are made available to everyone by the state, and in so doing, it has to try to accommodate as many groups as possible, even when each group wishes that the other would disappear. One group will cry out for protection against the swarm of lenses while the other will claim that they have freedom of movement and the right to photograph everyone on public property.

Of course, he is correct. He goes on:

One must ask how come there are no paparazzi in people’s homes. Because they have not been invited. Wherever there is private property, there is order as determined by the owner.

Indeed. But Lora's analysis doesn't address one other fallacy in the logic of prohibiting, or trying to control, the photographing of celebrities: Such an action flies in the face of basic economics. I heard a debate — if you can call it that — on TV about this issue. One of the participants — a politician I believe — opined that if it became illegal to sell many of these photos, then such behavior, that is, rampant photographing of folks like Britney and her ilk would stop. With apologies for my lack of tact, let me respond to such a suggestion with this simple retort: On what planet?

The Basics of Economics: Supply and Demand

Without venturing into a full-blown treatise on economic theory, it puzzles me that people continue to believe that legislation can quell demand. No matter the number of historical examples, people seem to forget. For hopefully the last time (this week) let me paraphrase a few basic tenets of Austrian economics:

If something with high demand is made illegal, the flow of supply will take another path, likely incurring additional danger. Even if some users are deterred by the legality or lack thereof, the remaining users will pay the additional cost and bear the burden of the increased danger. In short, the costs and danger will increase, generally compensating for any decrease in usage, while increasing the profit margin, and therefore the incentive for supplying the item. As a secondary effect, the suppliers will likely gain notoriety, fame, and income well beyond what they otherwise would have.

This scenario has played over and over, from prohibition in the 1920's up to and including illegal drugs today. It is not rocket science, nor is it debatable. If photographing celebs is illegal from Noon to 3:00 p.m. then photos taken at 3:15 and beyond will rise in cost to compensate. If photos taken at close range are outlawed, then photos taken from afar, with the appropriate equipment, will increase to compensate. One can legislate neither demand nor morality and any attempt to do so results in unintended consequences, very often bad ones.

Before anyone offers a rejoinder suggesting that the illegality of the photos could prevent their sale, let me offer this. A little-known document often cited but seldom read (apparently) by many of our lawmakers, states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

No matter from where the photos may have come, once they exist, it is unlikely that they could not be sold on the open market. If they are rare, for whatever reason, their value will rise correspondingly.

The Basics of the State: Misplaced Incentives and Graft

Since I brought up prohibition and illegal drugs, one other point deserves emphasis, if only to put a little context around the eventual repeal of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. One might be inclined, as was I, to think that "more reasonable heads prevailed" when the state finally decided that prohibiting the sale of alcohol was a losing battle. One might therefore think that reasonable arguments would convince busy-body legislators to stay out of the market for celebrity photographs. Seldom has that happened. As Donald Boudreaux so eloquently states in a piece entitled, "Prohibition Politics" from the July 25, 2007 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

The standard, schoolbook history of alcohol prohibition in the United States goes like this:

Americans in 1920 embarked on a noble experiment to force everyone to give up drinking. Alas, despite its nobility, this experiment was too naive to work. It soon became clear that people weren’t giving up drinking. Worse, it also became clear that Prohibition fueled mobsters who grew rich supplying illegal booze. So, recognizing the futility of Prohibition, Americans repealed it in 1934.

Boudreaux concludes that this mythological view is poppycock. His logic is sound and his evidence is compelling. Of course, he is correct. The state decided to dump prohibition because it found that making money off selling liquor, via tax revenue, was a necessity that could no longer be ignored. And so it goes with agents of the state. When what they want happens to correspond with what some of the sheeple might want, so much the better. If not, hey, crap happens.

Conclusion

Getting back to the main issue of this essay, Councilman Zine has no reason to worry about the media. He can no more put them out of business with legislation than the state can stem the flow of crack into its prisons. The value of celebrity photographs will decrease if and only if people decide to stop buying magazines that display them. The real problem, the real issue is this. How much worse will the state make the situation by getting involved? Unlike the case of prohibition, where the need for cash eventually drove the appropriate behavior, no such driving force exists for cases such as the supposed paparazzi problem. Boudreaux concludes his piece with:

So, if the history of alcohol prohibition is a guide, drug prohibition will not end merely because there are many sound, sensible and humane reasons to end it. Instead, it will end only if and when Congress gets desperate for another revenue source.

I just wish there was a sound, sensible, and profitable reason for the state to cease to exist, and short of that, to simply stay out of market-based, supply and demand situations. Unfortunately, most incentives point to more poor decisions versus fewer, and with them, more of the state versus less. Oh joy.

Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.

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