David R. Henderson  

Ludwig von Mises on the Drug War

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I'm at a weekend conference at which we're discussing various works by economists and philosophers. One of the readings is "The Foundations of Liberal Policy," a chapter in Ludwig von Mises's book, Liberalism: The Classical Tradition, published in 1927. Of course, Mises uses "liberalism" in the classical sense. Here's a great quote on laws against alcohol, cocaine, and morphine:

Whoever is convinced that indulgence or excessive indulgence in these poisons is pernicious is not hindered from living abstemiously or temperately. This question cannot be treated exclusively in reference to alcoholism, morphinism, cocainism, etc., which all reasonable men acknowledge to be evils. For if the majority of citizens is, in principle, conceded the right to impose its way of life upon a minority, it is impossible to stop at prohibitions against indulgence in alcohol, morphine, cocaine, and similar poisons. Why should not what is valid for these poisons be valid also for nicotine, caffein, and the like? Why should not the state generally prescribe which foods may be indulged in and which must be avoided because they are injurious?

Of course, he was prescient. The state has been engaging in a war on nicotine and on some foods like fat and salt for some time.

Notice: A U.S. government organization known as the Federal Trade Commission, whose purpose often seems to be to restrain trade and certainly to reduce freedom, has decided that I have to tell you that the publisher of the book I'm quoting above gave me a zero-price copy.


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CATEGORIES: Regulation



COMMENTS (17 to date)
John Fast writes:

As far as I can tell, there are two (invalid) reasons used to justify things like the War on Some Drugs and, now, the War on Some Foods.

The first is simple paternalism: "You're not allowed to eat these foods, drink these drinks, or smoke/snort/shoot these substances, because it's morally wrong to do so, even if it doesn't actually harm anyone else."

Of course as a good Christian I believe this sort of paternalism is a sin: it's nasty, often vicious, always prideful, and those who engage in it will go to Hell or, if they're lucky enough that they are able to change their minds, to Purgatory.

The second is the flimsy, "factually-challenged" belief that taking drugs, drinking alcohol, being fat, or riding without a seatbelt or helmet somehow hurts other people without their consent.

When I was in grade school forty years ago, we were taught that illegal drugs (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD) either made people stoned (i.e. the physical equivalent of falling-down drunk) or else cause them to hallucinate, or else get them extremely violent.

So we believed drug users would cause automobile accidents by swerving randomly, or by walking into traffic; or might jump out windows; or would suddenly fly into violent rages and start hitting and biting people as though they had rabies.

In fact, for most "hard" drugs, this is the *opposite* of the truth; heroin doesn't make people hyper and violent, it makes them lethargic and passive. Cocaine and marijuana can impair physical coordination and emotional self-control, but much less than alcohol does.

Instead, drugs seem to cause a irrational behavior in most non-users, and that irrational behavior (like supporting prohibition) causes enormous harm to others.

IF YOU SUPPORT DRUG PROHIBITION YOU ARE HELPING THE TERRORISTS.

david writes:

Not injurious; addictive. A crack addict is not a fully competent adult when it comes to the decision of whether to consume more cocaine.

Which doesn't necessarily imply prohibition; actual crack addicts are very few, don't seem likely to multiply vastly in number if prohibition is lifted, and there's no reason to harm all the other people who have the discipline to not get addicted in the first place. But it does imply heavy enough regulation that the state, or some subsidiary agency entitled to use force, can notice and take action when someone does become addicted.

William Barghest writes:

Suppose the state becomes increasingly competent at proscribing the unhealthful and other economically wasteful activities of its subjects. The people of such state become more healthy and more prosperous. Why is this bad? Would you move to a country where you would be significantly richer and live longer but had to submit to more petty regulations on what you could do? I would. At some point freedom becomes a consumption good for which you must make sacrifices.

Nathan writes:

"Suppose the state becomes increasingly competent at proscribing the unhealthful and other economically wasteful activities of its subjects. The people of such state become more healthy and more prosperous. Why is this bad?"

It's bad because people are being forced to give up things they enjoy based on someone else's value system, rather than their own. If Alice wants to smoke, drink, eat fattening food and live to be 70, and Betty wants to be in perfect health and live to be 90, each should be able to make that decision for themselves.

"Would you move to a country where you would be significantly richer and live longer but had to submit to more petty regulations on what you could do? I would."

The great thing about a free country is you don't have to physically move. You can "move" to a richer and longer life by making choices about what to eat, how much education to get, where to live, whether or not to smoke or drink, etc. Others can "move" to different life outcomes through their own choices. There is no need to impose a nanny state to achieve these goals for yourself.

ZC writes:

"It's bad because people are being forced to give up things they enjoy based on someone else's value system, rather than their own. If Alice wants to smoke, drink, eat fattening food and live to be 70, and Betty wants to be in perfect health and live to be 90, each should be able to make that decision for themselves."

As long as Alice will never get medical care paid for in any way by the state or any other system whereby people who don't pay are subsidized by those who do, and as long as she never collects unemployment or disability income, and never burdens the state with the responsibility of caring for her crack baby or unintended children she can't afford to feed and clothe, then fine, she can live whatever life she pleases.

But the second anyone else is compelled to pick up the tab for her choices, well, I have an interest in her not engaging in activity that has known negative consequences with regards to her health and productivity.

Don't get me wrong, the state does a bad job of regulating such things. Alcohol related deaths and injuries and the associated costs far surpass those caused by all illegal drugs in this country on an annual basis. But, your argument falls on it's face...unless you want to get the government out of all such meddling in our lives, in which case I'd agree with you in principle, but concede that such is not possible in reality.

ChrisH writes:
I have to tell you that the publisher of the book I'm quoting above gave me a zero-price copy

Aha! My suspicion that you are merely a shill for books published before the FDR administration is at last confirmed!

jimdew writes:

For sure, Alice can cause harmful and costly externalities through her behavior. But is the harm and cost sufficient to justify the harm and cost of regulating her behavior? It seems to me that those who want to control bad behavior through regulation are obliged to demonstrate that the cure isn't worse than the disease. Our great national experiment of Prohibition shows that the opposite can easily be true.

Doc Merlin writes:

By following the FTC's absurd color of law, you legitimize their power. It is better to ignore it when appropriate.

Yancey Ward writes:

I second Doc's comment. Of course, I am not the one at the end of the gun for disobeying.

Tom West writes:

Okay, let's up the challenge level.

If we're being all truly Libertarian about this, would it be a justified violation of rights to prevent companies selling drugs from giving out free samples to 18 year-olds? From holding concerts with popular artists where the admission was empty packages of the drug product? (As has been done to promote cigarettes in the third world?)

> Why should not what is valid for these poisons be
> valid also for nicotine, caffein, and the like?

Nicotine and caffein (sic) get a pass because that's just the way people feel. And laws are passed on the basis of how people feel, not philosophical principles (although the two are often aligned).

Good thing, too, since any set of absolute rules governing humanity is going to lead to some silliness in the corner cases. Better to rule using some guiding principles mixed with a generous helping of pragmatism.

Bob Murphy writes:

David, I think it's okay to say the book was a "free" copy. We are not going to accuse you of being ignorant of scarcity. :)

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks, Bob. Using "zero price" instead of "free" was something I picked up my first quarter at UCLA, in Armen Alchian's class. It's stuck with me ever since.

Matt Flipago writes:

This is one of those crazy cases where a person tries a reducto ad absurdum argument, and they except the absurd conclusion, leaving one baffled and dismayed.

Tom writes:

ZC,

Excellent argument for having the government exit the health care business. Thank you.

Doc Merlin writes:

@Tom:
Beyond this, another argument is that government funded health insurance is itself an externality.

Colin K writes:

I've long been in favor of drug law liberalization but a recent experience has challenged me on a related point.

My doctor told me that in order to control my hypertension, I really need to limit my salt intake. Anecdotally, I've found this to be much more challenging than counting calories or reducing fat, carbs, sugar, caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol consumption.

I've checked the nutrition info for every lunch place near my office, and the amount of sodium in all of their food is shocking. A small chicken burrito at a place known for its use of fresh/organic/healthy stuff is 500 calories but 65% of your RDA of sodium. A Dunkin Donuts regular bagel is almost 30% of your RDA before you put anything on it.

Compared to a tax on fat or sugar, reduced salt content in foods does not feel like a big impingement on freedom to me. In all but a few cases, the consumer can easily add in all the salt he wants at the time of consumption, at effectively zero cost.

Granted, some of the use of sodium is probably to offset reductions in cholesterol/fat (which by many estimates the FDA et. al. have been overly zealous about), but this is otherwise a case where it feels like the "big government" approach doesn't reduce consumer choice or property rights in a really profound way.

However, it's one I've been pondering a lot vis-a-vis Arnold's comments a few weeks back that the real tests of which church you belong to are the issues you care deeply about. I'm libertarian on most issues of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll but I also don't really mind people smoking pot, cigarettes, or freebase cocaine as a matter of personal choice. Salt, OTOH...

Pensatulla writes:

The problem is that drug dealers sell to 13 year olds, then 11 years olds, and down the line. It's not a matter of personal choice when we're that young.

So at what age should freedom begin?

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