People don’t always do what politicians tell them to

People don’t always do what politicians would like them to. When politicians hike taxes, people often don’t just carry on doing what they were doing before and pay the higher taxes, they find all kinds of ways to reduce their tax liability, many of them perfectly legal. As my colleague Martha Njolomole wrote this week, a good number of Minnesotans respond to the state’s high cigarette taxes not by either smoking less or smoking as much and handing over more money to the state government, but by buying their cigarettes in neighboring states. Thus, the politicians aims or discouraging smoking or collecting more revenue are confounded by individual human action.

Another example comes along Minnesota’s border with Wisconsin. WCCO reports:

On a moonlit Monday night along the bustling main drag of Hudson, Wisconsin, hungry customers shuffled into bars and restaurants — many of whom call Minnesota home.

Joe and Jill Bonfe of Woodbury wanted to celebrate his birthday.

“We come over here quite a bit on weekends,” Joe Bonfe said. “We probably would have found a place in Woodbury, but being that everything’s closed up and just takeout right now, it’s kind of hard, you know, to plan on going out.”

Staff at several area restaurants said the rush of visitors who live west of the St. Croix River was immediate after the new restrictions started over the weekend in Minnesota. Bars and restaurants are closed to dine-in service until Dec. 18.

Nathan Meilrosse is the assistant taproom manager at Hop and Barrel Brewing Company in Hudson.

“Saturday was one the busiest Saturdays we’ve had in months, and it was probably 75% – 80% from Minnesota,” Meilrosse said.

It somewhat reminds him of early May, when Wisconsin opened up as Minnesota stayed locked down.

With bars and restaurants linked to fewer than 2% of Covid-19 cases diagnosed since June 10th, it is not surprising that a good number of Minnesotans have looked at Gov. Walz’ new restrictions and thought: “Nah”.

Minnesota’s officials may harrumph. WCCO reports that:

Crossing the border for a meal or to socialize is not breaking any rules, but it is frowned upon by Minnesota health leaders. A spokesperson with the Minnesota Department of Health said doing so is a risky behavior that continues the spread of the virus, and only makes the new restrictions less effective.

These officials must be wary of not becoming what the economist Adam Smith called “The man of system”, who:

…is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess‐​board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess‐​board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess‐​board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder. 

Those officials would be well advised to heed Smith’s warning.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.