I wasn’t going to post about this when I saw some glibertarian or another make this argument, but now that I see Kevin Drum making it I’ll shoot it down, because why not:

But even as a meddling, big-government-loving, knee-jerk liberal, I’m having a hard time coming up with a good reason for this. If Delta Airlines wants to allow cell phone use even though half their customer base rebels, why shouldn’t they? The safety arguments are pretty specious, and in any case, Shuster doesn’t even try to go there. He just wants to prohibit private companies from allowing behavior that he finds annoying.

I don’t know. Maybe this is one of those things like the Do Not Call List, where I should decide that I just don’t care about first principles. Cell phones on airplanes are so self-evidently infuriating, and banning them is such a trivial infringement on personal liberty, that we should be in favor of it regardless. But I confess that I’d still like to hear a more coherent argument. Why should the federal government be in charge of telling companies where they can and can’t permit their customers to use cell phones?

The answer is externalities and market power. The first half is simple. If I have an obnoxious phone call on an airplane, I am imposing an externality on everyone else.

“So what?” you say. “The same when you’re having a cell phone call in [some other place where you may overhear someone else’s cell phone calls]. Why are airplanes any different?”

Ah. But they are different.

Firstly, you are totally trapped on the plane, likely for hours. If it turns out the dude in the seat in front of me wants to talk for seven straight hours with his significant other from whom he is getting a divorce and boy is that the worst conversation ever, I have absolutely no recourse. If I’m in a restaurant, I can leave. If I’m on the subway, I’m there for maybe a few minutes.

Secondly, airplanes are deeply unpleasant places to be that everybody hates. You’re tens of thousands of feet in the air in a giant metal tube, and you can’t leave. It’s weird, and we can and should acknowledge that people act differently under that circumstance.

Third and most importantly, you can’t change your future behavior to avoid the unpleasantry. If you know that a certain restaurant won’t prohibit cell phone calls, you can go to a restaurant that can. You can get on a different subway car. Etcetera.

But there just isn’t enough meaningful competition in the airline industry to actually have some airlines go cell-free and others go no-cell. Even if they did, the price differentials on certain routes can be extreme on different airlines because of hub-and-spoking and other factors having nothing to do with cell phone calling. Simply put, the economics of the airline industry are such that most consumers have very little market power to take one airline over another for personal travel based on marginal or even substantial non-pecuniary preferences.

And lastly, the entire air travel industry basically exists because of the implicit and explicit subsidy and protection of government. It’s a vital public utility, but not an inherently profitable industry. If the industry doesn’t exist except for government intervention, it’s perfectly fine for government to regulate it in ways that make it more pleasant to the consumer. And unlike “more legroom” or “free checked bags” there aren’t even any implicit costs passed onto consumers, unless you think allowing cell phone calls on planes will somehow make us all wealthier, because I have no idea why that would be, that’s for sure.

There’s just nothing wrong with saying airplanes are different. They are. And if cell phone calls on airplanes are a giant anxiety- and unhappiness-inducing nuisance, we can ban them. Maybe on the short shuttle flights that are mostly business travelers we can allow them and say “no calls on flights over 90 minutes in length.” But there’s plenty of principled ground to have a regulatory intervention on this matter.