John McGinnis on the Case for Allowing Cell Phone Use on Planes

Few issues arouse as many strong emotional reactions as the possibility of permitting cell phone usage on planes. At the Law and Liberty blog, Northwestern University law professor John McGinnis has an excellent post making the case for legalization:

Cell phones on airplanes frighten a lot of people and not for safety reasons. Few people want to listen to a seatmate discuss his cat’s health or other trivia for hours. As someone who flies a good deal and values a trip in the clouds for wispy and random reflection, I deeply sympathize. But as a friend of liberty, I oppose a law to ban phone calls on planes….

In the same week in December that the FCC voted to consider lifting its ban on cell phones for airplanes, members of Congress introduced legislation to ban calls, regardless of an inquiry into their safety. This position allows our representatives to pose as tribunes of the people’s ear. But left to their own devices, airlines have an interest in maximizing revenue by satisfying both cell phone users and devotees of peaceful glide time.

First, some airlines might permit cell phone uses and others not, giving customers a choice. Southwest, for instance, has said it will not allow phone service, regardless of its legality. Second, airlines could have quiet sections where no cell phone is permitted and sections where travelers can connect with the world outside. Even the government monopoly of Amtrak offers inspiration here with its quiet cars in several sections of the nation.

Third, airlines could use surcharges to limit phone use to those most willing to pay for it, thus preserving relative tranquility while satisfying those who really need to make calls. Unbundling communication and transportation services in this way could even lower prices for passengers who do not use their phones, continuing the process of deregulation that has helped reduce basic ticket prices by 50 percent in the past thirty years….

And social norms will surely come into play. On the commuter trains I rarely hear people speaking on the phone for any length of time. We tend to imagine an unknown future without norms, but when the future arrives there is much order without law.

Evidence from other countries that have permitted cell phone use on planes support’s John’s argument.

Many of the points John makes are relevant to debates over government regulation generally. Advocates of one-size-fits-all centralized regulation often implicitly assume that the only alternative is a chaotic free-for-all (in this case, no restrictions on airborne cell phone use of any kind). In reality, market competition and social norms often impose important constraints of their own, while simultaneously giving consumers greater freedom of choice than they would be allowed under a command and control regulation. Most importantly, firms can adopt varying rules in order to cater to consumers with diverse preferences. That doesn’t prove that all regulation is unjustified. But it is an important factor to consider in debates over the appropriate scope of government intervention in various markets.