Bryan Caplan  

Who's Second-Guessing

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The issue from yesterday post was... drug policy.  The author, Scott Morgan, is reacting to Mark Kleiman's disinterest in the legalization option.  Kleiman:
But there are things we can do about drug policy that would reduce the number of people in prison, and the extent of drug abuse and drug related crime. Legalization isn't one of them because there's not public support for it. And if we acknowledge the fact that, from the point of view of the majority of the population it's a loser, um, then it's not as if we can talk them out of that, so I think the legalization debate is mostly a distraction from doing the real work of fixing our drug policies.
Plainly, the whole don't-talk-about-drug-legalization argument as stated above has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of drug legalization. Taken at face value, these pleading solicitations for us to shut up carry with them the salient implication that if drug legalization were politically viable, then it would be a perfectly sensible thing to discuss.

Ironically, drug legalization could become politically viable overnight if not for the multitudes of influential people who continue to oppose it largely because it lacks political viability.
Contrary to some people in the comments, I am in no way critical of Morgan.  For all I know, he second-guesses the public on a wide variety of issues.  My point is simply that the typical single-issue activist eagerly second-guesses the public on their pet issue, but probably remains deferential to public opinion as a general rule.

Update: I thought "Kleiman" but wrote "Kelman."  My bad.

COMMENTS (7 to date)
Finch writes:

The guesses were interesting. The first commenter suggested global warming, which was particularly clever because many people on all sides of that issue could easily have said something similar.

If you find yourself thinking "I'm right and the mainstream is uninformed," you should probably lower your confidence in being right. Not by a lot, because it's possible for very wrong beliefs to persist in the mainstream. But by a little, because it's much more likely that you're missing something than that you're smarter than everybody else. This may have been the reason people thought Bryan was critiquing Morgan.

Yancey Ward writes:

What threw me in trying to guess was that I assumed the comment was from a busybody. Yikes!!!

Tom Church writes:

(Kleiman, not Kelman.)

NZ writes:

I think Morgan makes a good point above. Public opinion is more easily influenced than many people presume. If respected pundits brought legalization "into their vocabulary" as it were, soon after, the public would as well.

That said, I think Kelman's statement above is a bit misinformed. Reducing the prison population, while a popular stated goal among legalization advocates, isn't necessarily something legalizers would actually want once those would-be incarcerateds were back on the streets. Remember, while many in the corrections system are officially booked only on drug charges, a great number of them are also violent criminals against whom drug laws are used as a proxy. The primary motive for violent behavior, for many of them, involves the sale of illegal drugs. So, keeping drugs illegal while looking for other ways to lower the prison population would probably be a bad idea, even if you support drug legalization.

The extent of drug abuse seems to be only partially influenced by laws, and not in large part either. With this one, too, decreasing drug abuse does not seem to actually be a primary or even secondary goal of drug prohibition. The ideological anti-drug zealots have gone the way of Mormon polygamists. These days, drug warriors are much more cynical: they know that the real payoff from drug prohibition is having an easy way for law enforcement to lock people up without all that "due process" stuff getting in the way; but they are more than happy with the fact that their detractors (the legalization advocates) tend to focus on the ideology of prohibition instead. And like I said in the above paragraph, legalization advocates wouldn't necessarily like the end result if law enforcement lost their proxy.

As for "drug related crime", this is a statistic that can be easily manipulated without changing the law one bit. Does the crime itself need to involve drugs (such as a drug deal)? Does it require that a criminal is under the influence of some drug while he is committing a crime? Or can it simply be any time a criminal is found to be in possession of some drug, regardless whether he has that drug on his person or in his system while he commits a crime? One need only choose a metric to get a desired statistical result.

Tom West writes:

What threw me in trying to guess was that I assumed the comment was from a busybody.

Interesting. I assume the public is in favor of intervention, as they see the problem but not the costs of the solution. (I lean interventionist, but I like to know the costs of what I'm buying...)

I know it's popular to blame politicians, but I think for the most part they give us what we want.

The one thing I don't get is why people feel legalization is an impossibility. I'd say it's where gay marriage was 10 years ago. (We've already got one major party leader in Canada who's know publicly in favor. (The second is for de-criminalization - the party in power is for building more prisons.)

Daublin writes:

+1 for Tom's comparison to gay marriage.

For marijuana in particular, I could see the norms changing very quickly, followed quickly by the laws.

The first step is to get past the "it's too crazy to even talk about" stage.

Philo writes:

The single-issue activist thinks he understands his particular issue better than the public does. But he doesn’t think he understands most other issues better, so on those he defers to public opinion. (This is obvious rather than profound.)

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