David R. Henderson  

Mead's Asymmetric Treatment of Illegal Drugs

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In today's Wall Street Journal appears a "Notable and Quotable" from Walter Russell Mead. It's from a longer post he did about the drug war. Mead's contribution to the discussion is to point out that we should, as a way of not supporting dealers in illegal drugs, boycott their wares. Like many of the people who commented on his post, I already do boycott.

What upsets Mead is all the violence in the drug industry. There's a simple solution that is guaranteed to work: legalize drugs. When Prohibition of alcohol ended, organized crime exited the liquor industry--and so did violence. What's striking, though, is Mead's moral outrage against people who do buy illegal drugs and his complete lack of outrage against the politicians and cops who conduct the drug war.

Mead is clear that his issue is not drug dependency. It is violence. He writes:

There is no commercial product widely consumed in the United States whose production, sale and distribution does more harm than the illegal drug industry. I am not referring to the harm that drug users do to themselves, or even the harm that the drug dependencies that so often grow from the use of illegal drugs do to the family and friends of the drug user.

I am referring to the social devastation that the illegal drug industry does in countries like Columbia, Mexico and Afghanistan. I am talking about the consequences of putting money into the hands of murderers and thugs whose greed and unscrupulous behavior makes your standard multinational oil company look like Mother Teresa. I am talking about the violence and the culture of violence that wreaks such terrible havoc in urban areas all around the world.


Mead is "not sure," he tells us, about drug legalization. He writes:
It's clear that what we are doing now gets us the worst of both worlds: we have high levels of drug use and dependency and the curse of an organized illegal drug industry. It is also clear that draconian drug laws condemn an unconscionable number of young people to long prison terms where in too many cases they are raped and brutalized in ways that cast serious doubt on our society's commitment to basic legal and moral values. This is wrong, and it needs to change.

He continues:
On the other hand, legalization doesn't always make things better. I note that Amsterdam is getting ready to tighten the noose around its pot coffeehouses even as California voters weigh the pros and cons of legalizing locoweed.

But he gives no evidence that legalization doesn't make it better. He writes:
The only real answer is both boring and utopian: temperance. If nobody took too many drugs, society wouldn't have a drug problem, and drug laws could be lax. But not everybody is capable of this kind of prudent restraint, and legislators have to try to muck around with trying to regulate dangerous social problems in the least harmful and restrictive way.

Oh, those poor legislators. They're so put upon, having to regulate people's lives. Although Mead is not sure about legalization, he is sure that the only answer is temperance. Not temperance by those who would throw people in prison for using and selling drugs, but temperance by those who may already be temperate.

HT to Don Boudreaux.


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CATEGORIES: Economics of Crime



COMMENTS (22 to date)
Hyena writes:

Prof. Henderson,

So what do you think of the new marijuana legalization initiative then? I'd really like to see someone I trust much more than the usual commentators and interest groups weigh in, specifically on the arguments given by the Chamber of Commerce against it.

I'll say up front that I'm greatly inclined to support itl it is hard for be to see the calculus of liberty running against it, whatever the law's defects.

David R. Henderson writes:

Dear Hyena,
On this blog, we are not allowed to take positions on specific legislation. However, we are allowed to analyze legislation. And we are allowed to talk about how we voted: I voted for Obama, I voted for Ron Paul, etc. I voted for it.
Also, you've motivated me to discuss the red herrings that some people have trotted out against it. I'll do so soon.
Thanks for your trust.
Best,
David

Mercer writes:

I have just finished reading Last Call a history of prohibition in the US. One of the things it mentions is that Britain and Canada did little to try to prevent alcohol produced in their territory from going to the US. Contrast that with present day Mexico which is in chaos from trying to stop drugs from going north.

If I were a Mexican citizen I would be enraged that my country was undergoing such violence and corruption in the attempt to enforce the laws of another country that was bigger and wealthier.

AC writes:

Mead says drug users should be mocked, I think Mead should be mocked for giving an off-hand nod to legalization but actually dismissing it so casually.

Yancey Ward writes:

Mercer raises a point I wish would be highlighted more often- the countries being corrupted by the drug trade should just legalize the transport and use of of these drugs themselves. Of course, the difference between now and the prohibition era is that it was legal to produce, sell, and drink alcohol in Canada. I hope Mexico eventually comes to it's senses and legalizes these drugs internally.

Hyena writes:

Just for the sake of wit:

Everyone agrees that we must eliminate illegal drugs. The debate is between people who think we can eliminate the drugs and those that realize we can only change what's legal.

Mercer writes:

"difference between now and the prohibition era is that it was legal to produce, sell, and drink alcohol in Canada"

It was legal for Quebec. In the other provinces it was illegal to produce and sell internally but it was legal to produce and sell to the US from 1920-1928.

Britain did nothing to stop alcohol produced and shipped from their colonies in the Caribbean.

Hyena writes:

Mercer,

I've always thought that Latin American states should simply legalize the drug trade and let America deal. Why the insist on kowtowing to Washington is a mystery to me.

Yancey Ward writes:

Mercer,

Thanks. I didn't know that. I just assumed Canada wasn't nearly as dumb as the US.

Underwriterguy writes:

There are two issues: the havoc that drugs wreak on lives and the dysfunction of the war on drugs.

You only have to attend a few Naranon meetings to see what drugs do to individuals, families and society. However, the cure is not to try and legislate behavior.

Making all recreational drugs legal would have immense salutatory effect: fewer felons, fewer inhabitants of prisons, fewer deaths, etc. The costs of prosecuting, trying and housing drug users is a drain on our economy. Let's let the state protect us from violence, not become symbiotic with a culture of violence.

Jehu writes:

I'm personally in favor of abolishing pretty much all federal laws as regards drugs (even the FDA, which I'd allow in an 'Underwriters Labs' role until the free market made it as obsolete as the Post Office). The problem is that most of politics is 'Who...Whom', and the drug using population has really made itself odious in the eyes of the median voter...to myself for that matter, and they'd prefer not to raise the social status of said group. A similar thing, somewhat attenuated, is going on with smokers. If people were allowed to meaningfully discriminate against people that they didn't like (e.g., pot-smoking pig, you need not apply here for work...smoker dogs can't rent here) without facing legal sanctions, they'd be a lot more willing to forgo making things illegal. Since anti-discrimination has taken that club out of the golf bag for most folks, they have to reach for the 'ban it or harrass them with laws' driver to express their animus. And make no mistake, they WILL express their animus, it's part of the human condition.

There is one option for these groups though---they'd need to organize into a cohesive political block and pick some allies that are already formed into single-issue constituencies are broker a deal (e.g. get together with the pro-gun and pro-life groups and make a vote for us always and we'll vote for you always deal). Somebody has to be stuck in the back of the bus, practically be definition. This is how you'd insure that someone was someone else.

Kent Gatewood writes:

How does legalization deal with minors and product liability?

On product liability the producers of alcohol seem to have none, while the producers of cigarettes have alot?

Silas Barta writes:

@David_R._Henderson

On this blog, we are not allowed to take positions on specific legislation. However, we are allowed to analyze legislation. And we are allowed to talk about how we voted: I voted for Obama, I voted for Ron Paul, etc. I voted for it.

Interesting. Also, on this blog, are you allowed to split hairs, or are you strictly limited to providing for longitudinal division of mammalian follicular extrusions? ;-)

Silas Barta writes:

@Jehu: Employers can already discriminate in that way, even in this restrictive legal environment. There are "smoke-free workplaces" all around (I'm in one). Now, those don't require you not to *be* a smoker, just that you can't do it on company property -- you have to leave the entire premises to do it.

So that's a way of "discriminating" on the basis of drug use.

Not to mention "drug-free workplaces" that have random drug testing.

Employers are also able to have "morals clauses", in which you can be fired for doing something morally questionable (like hiring a prostitute), even if it's legal where performed.

So I don't think there'd be a problem with organizations, where they found it a net benefit to do so, to discriminate against users of certain drugs.

And I really don't see anything wrong with that -- organization exclusiveness is a morally acceptable, understandable, and likely mechanism for a free market to keep drug use down to acceptable levels. The difference between an HOA "banning" drugs vs. the DEA is that the HOA wouldn't do it by midnight no-knock raids.

Hyena writes:

Silas,

True, they usually do it during the day, while you're at work. You will find your mailbox mysteriously missing and all your mail on your doorstep, wrapped in a note.

T M Colon writes:

Drug prohibition is the desire for a world without drug addicts. Yes, the world would be a better, safer place without drug addicts on the streets, in the home, and on the job. But drug prohibition doesn't accomplish that. A century of drug prohibition should be evidence enough.

The reality is a choice between a world with drug addicts, and a world with fewer drug addicts along with a black market and all the corruption, violence and costs that entails. Most people, it seems, believe the second is the better choice. So, to save drug uses from themselves and the populace from drug users we inflict corruption, violence and high costs of enforcement due to the inevitable black market on everyone. A good bargain?

"The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history."

--Friedrich Hegel

Prakhar Goel writes:

@Dr. Henderson,

When Prohibition of alcohol ended, organized crime exited the liquor industry--and so did violence.

Yes, and it went straight into protection rackets. Likewise, if drugs were legalized, the many many gangs and cartels currently associated with drugs will just go into other illegal activities --- human trafficking and their own protection rackets for instance. Hell, the mexican cartels have already started to specialize in K&R due to competitive pressures from other drug providers.

Legalizing drugs might reduce violence in the drug trade, but it will not reduce violence overall. In fact, for a short period of time, drug legalization will drastically increase violence because the current equilibrium that the gangs have spent so much time establishing will disappear overnight. Instead, they will have to start new mini-wars for territory.

Personally, I think there are only two conditions under which drug legalization can be considered to be anything but a catastrophically misguided idea:

1) the US government gets over its organizational dysfunction and exterminates the current gangs, and

2) congress establishes extremely strong anti-vagrancy acts --- I don't want streets littered with drug addicts though I don't particularly care what they do in their own homes.

Welfare reform will likewise be needed to ensure that drug users do not become a burden on the tax-base as indeed they already are.

Until those two requirements are satisfied, especially the first, keeping the drug laws in place is IMHO the best idea. Overall, drug laws are clear and obvious --- its pretty easy to tell an illegal drug apart from a legal one. Also, as long as the drug cartels are busy with drugs, their activities are contained --- something that will certainly not be the case with some of the nastier fields they could branch out into if the drug business were to disappear.

Prohibition, the drug laws, and the incompetent US criminal justice system created the gangs but now that they exist, the drug laws are one of the current best ideas for keeping them away from the general population.

Mercer writes:

"Personally, I think there are only two conditions under which drug legalization can be considered to be anything but a catastrophically misguided idea:
1) the US government gets over its organizational dysfunction and exterminates the current gangs,"

I think it is unrealistic to think governments can eliminate an activity that generates such enormous profits. The drug dealers will buy protection from government enforcement. That was the case in the US under prohibition and in Mexico today.

mick writes:

The Dutch say that every year to keep America happy. He has obviously never been to Amsterdam which is the most prosperous and most fun city in Europe.

liberty writes:

I think two very important issues have been raised in the comments against the libertarian pro-legalization stance.

1. T M Colon writes:

"The reality is a choice between a world with drug addicts, and a world with fewer drug addicts along with a black market and all the corruption, violence and costs that entails."

Question: are we sure that legalization would increase drug use & addiction? There have been some studies on this - I am not sure that we can conclusively say. On the one hand it would be easier to obtain the drugs; on the other hand there is a certain mystique with doing things that are illegal. It would also depend on whether businesses could advertise (which would surely increase use); whether the drugs were regulated and campaigns against drug use were in place; and whether more addictive drugs were sold (and at what price) or whether regulation encouraged new less-addictive ones, etc.

2. Prakhar Goel writes:

"if drugs were legalized, the many many gangs and cartels currently associated with drugs will just go into other illegal activities --- human trafficking and their own protection rackets for instance."

This is a point a friend of mine (with personal experience of this market) made to me. It does make a lot of sense and is rarely addressed by pro-legalization theorists.

There are a few types of drug dealers to consider - and for each there is a short term and a long term question about what they would likely do.

(1) Regarding e.g., Mexican drug cartels: the main issue, as H. de Soto addresses at length, is that a lack of good institutions in a society breeds corruption. If this is not addressed in Mexico these cartels will surely go to something else similarly bad (maybe worse, maybe better, in terms of violence, its hard to say).

(2) Regarding American mafia and other importers: what are the laws against what they might change to? If it is easier to enforce laws against ONLY illegal arms, prostitution (or make that legal!), human trafficking, etc. then they may be forced into the legal sector: gambling, (legal prostitution) etc.

(3) Regarding street and small time dealers: some of these people really would have trouble adjusting. Welfare programs might be flooded. The hard core street dealers won't start working for the local pot dispensary or selling cocaine at the pharmacy. Many would find another illegal activity - it provides a different lifestyle, feeling of power and outsider-status, and different flow of money, etc.

Eric Hosemann writes:

Mercer's point about Mexicans killing themselves to enforce our laws is a stunning one. I'm ashamed to admit that I never thought of it that way.

The U.S. government forces poorer, drug producing countries to bear the costs its drug prohibition.

If you carry Mercer's point further, the Mexican situation seems hopeless. Either they bear the cost in lives and property from our misguided policies, or they refuse to bear the cost, do as Mercer suggests, and liberalize their own policies. Then the might suffer consequences such as a barrage of punitive American protectionist legislation or in the worst case American military action of some kind.

Prakhar Goel writes:

@Mercer,

I think your lack of experience with effective governments has made you underestimate the power of violence (which after all, is really what a government is --- some organization with a monopoly on legitimate violence).

The fact is that most illegal activities are highly profitable until government makes them otherwise --- for the criminals it least though often not for the victim. Theft is quite profitable for the thief. Likewise, protection rackets are very profitable --- just consider the revenue the US government brings in with the income tax.

The US government has simply not run an effective program to eradicate gangs in the last 50+ years. If you want to see what a really effective program for gang elimination would look like, see Modern Warfare by Roger Trinquier or the Lieber Code. Suffice to say, it look nothing like the modern day US criminal justice system.

@liberty,

Thanks for the complement.

Here is how I would suggest thinking of the drug cartels (their leaders and heads if not the foot-soldiers as well).

They are a group of people who have demonstrated the following qualities:

1) For sufficient profit (which happens to be lower than for most people), they will violate laws, engage is mass violence, and do pretty much anything even if the penalty is death.

2) They are organized and smart enough to stay that way.

I am certain that there are only two stable positions for such people where they can possibly contribute to society and refrain from needless and costly acts of violence: in the government or six feet under. There is no middle ground.

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