Monday, June 15, 2020

The Cigarette: A Political History

The Cigarette: A Political History (Harvard UP, 2019) by Sarah Milov, co-founder of this blog, was recently reviewed by Reuel Schiller for Jotwell. Schiller writes that Milov's "narrative weaves together legal, political, and economic history in a manner that calls for a revaluation of the dimensions of twentieth-century liberalism and the nature of its decline. The book is a compelling exercise in historical synecdoche: its subject is the political history of the cigarette, but its story is that of the twentieth-century American state." Further excerpts:

Frankly, one could teach a course on twentieth-century legal history using this book as a textbook. It speaks to a broad range of subjects central to the interests of legal historians: the role of law in constituting capitalism; the interaction of law, gender, and race in the construction of social movements; the simultaneously emancipatory and constraining potential of framing policy preferences as rights; the profound role of the administrative state in structuring politics and policy; the rise of public interest litigation; the importance of understanding the legal history of agriculture, a field sorely neglected by legal historians. While different readers will find different analytic points particularly compelling, two stand out for me.

First, Milov’s narrative suggests the need to reevaluate the postwar state’s legal and political contours. For readers familiar with early New Deal policies such as the National Industrial Recovery Act and its industry-written “codes of fair competition,” American tobacco policy is familiar. It was “associationalism” — an interweaving of public and private power that obscured the extent to which private institutions acted as vehicles for public policy. In the traditional narrative of the New Deal, associationalism ended with the political and legal demise of the National Recovery Administration in 1935. Joining scholars such as Brian Balogh, Milov shows how, in fact, associationalism outlasted the NRA and became an integral component of postwar state. Far from being replaced by the light touch of Keynesian fiscal policy, Milov shows how producer-oriented associationalism melded with consumer-oriented Keynsianism to give an alliance of corporate and state interests an active role in structuring the post-war economy as it simultaneously created an illusion of statelessness.

Second, The Cigarette: A Political History furthers our understanding the demise of postwar liberalism at the end of the twentieth century.  While Milov does not suggest that American tobacco policy was progressive, she notes that the tactics deployed against it had a distinctly illiberal bent. By combining libertarian hostility towards the administrative state with an efficiency-based, cost-benefit attack on smoking, big tobacco’s opponents helped create a political culture that undermined egalitarian public policy. This market-based political culture denied the state a role in combatting systemic inequities within markets and ignored the fact that policies based on cost-benefit analysis frequently ignored important, not-easily-quantifiable values.

Don’t get me wrong. The fact that fewer Americans smoke now than at any time since the introduction of the cigarette is a triumph of postwar public policy.  But this victory did not come without a cost. Milov concludes The Cigarette: A Political History with the dismaying observation that while the “cultural cachet” of the cigarette has all but disappeared, smokers have not. Instead, concentrated within poor and minority communities, they have become increasingly stigmatized. Most Americans blame them for an addiction that is the legacy of a century of governmental action.  Nor has big tobacco’s political and economic power waned. The deregulation of tobacco farming allowed cigarette manufacturers to drive down the price of tobacco to levels not seen since the 1920s. Their political power repeatedly thwarted attempts to regulate smoking at the federal level, leading to a sieve-like patchwork of state and local restrictions.

Thus, the victory against big tobacco was hardly a total one. More complete, dismayingly, was the transformation of the relationship between Americans and the state occasioned by the fight against tobacco. Milov tells us that “the non-smokers’ rights movement refashioned what Americans believed the government owed to citizens and what citizens owed to the government.” (p. 278) Few of us, Milov included, would want to go back to a system of governance in which public and private elites worked together to promote a deadly product. But some of the values that percolated through that system – that the state should promote a measure of economic egalitarianism, that “free” markets are often anything but free, and that social solidarity rather than atomized competition might be a legitimate basis for public policy – are ones that we sorely miss.

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