David R. Henderson  

The Daily Hell of the War on Drugs

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It's an urgent situation, because Professor Goffman's book shows clearly that the microeconomics of a life on the run are grim indeed.
This is the closing paragraph of Tyler Cowen's excellent piece, "The Financial Hazards of a Fugitive Life," New York Times, June 1, 2014 (print). Tyler's article is a review of Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.

Although, as Tyler notes, Goffman doesn't highlight the drug war, Tyler does:

The book can be read as an indictment of the war on drugs, though Professor Goffman doesn't stress this implication. People who run afoul of drug laws face economic burdens and losses of liberty that are extremely destructive and go well beyond the risk of a prison sentence. The author refers to the American ghetto as "one of the last repressive regimes of the age." Current drug laws have helped to create and maintain these social structures without appearing to have done much to limit substance abuse.

An excerpt from Goffman's piece, "The Fugitive Life," in the New York Times the same day:
A few weeks after Eddie turned 14, an officer stopped him outside the corner store, patted him down and found a nickel bag of crack in the lining of his jeans. When the officer reached for his handcuffs, Eddie fled, losing the officer in the alleyways. In the escape, Eddie scaled a fence and landed badly. He walked into his grandmother's house panting and clutching his right forearm, the bone exposed. I had been sitting with his grandmother that afternoon and saw Eddie come through the door.

Back to Tyler:
For all the recent talk of a surveillance state created through the National Security Agency, an oppressive low-tech surveillance state has been in place for decades -- and it's been directed at many of America's poorest people.

As every friend or relative becomes a potential informant, cooperation plummets and life degenerates into a day-to-day struggle to remain outside the reaches of the law. Professor Goffman offers a chilling portrait of tactics used to encourage relatives to turn in possible lawbreakers: For example, the police may tell mothers that if they don't report their errant men, the authorities will yank their children, a threat that may be backed by a charge of harboring or aiding and abetting a fugitive. "Squealing" thus becomes more likely. A community becomes divided between those who are on the clean side of the law and those who are not. And trust breaks down in personal relationships.


On December 4 last year, President Obama said:
I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American.

He went on to advocate more government programs rather than getting rid of one government program: the war on drugs.

It's tragic that so many people who care about inequality want to get more equality by forcibly taking from the wealthy rather than ending destructive government programs. So many pundits write about the top 1%. They need to care more about the bottom 1%.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Fake Herzog writes:

"A community becomes divided between those who are on the clean side of the law and those who are not. And trust breaks down in personal relationships."

Doesn't that just describe every community? Years ago someone broke into my house and stole some items from my family -- so he was on one side of the law (the dirty side, a thief) and I was on another side of the law (the clean side, a honest property owner).

Now, I guess your issue is with where we draw the line for certain types of behavior like drug use (and their sale). But there are perfectly good arguments for banning the sale and use of dangerous drugs -- that fact that some people have a hard time obeying those laws is not a reason in and of itself to get rid of the laws. For example, in the story above -- what the heck is a 14 year old kid doing with crack? And why is he running from a police officer? The story elicits no sympathy from me for Eddie: he seems like a bad apple who should be locked up.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Fake Herzog,
Where to start? Ok, here goes.
Years ago someone broke into my house and stole some items from my family -- so he was on one side of the law (the dirty side, a thief) and I was on another side of the law (the clean side, a honest property owner).
I distinguish between those crimes and the crime of, say, offering to sell you something voluntarily acquired.
Now, I guess your issue is with where we draw the line for certain types of behavior like drug use (and their sale).
Correct.
But there are perfectly good arguments for banning the sale and use of dangerous drugs
OK. But you didn’t make one.
that fact that some people have a hard time obeying those laws is not a reason in and of itself to get rid of the laws.
That’s correct. My argument does NOT depend on people having trouble obeying laws. It depends on the idea that the laws are bad. If people had trouble obeying laws against murder--and some do--I would not advocate repealing laws against murder.
what the heck is a 14 year old kid doing with crack?
That’s answered in the article by Goffman.
And why is he running from a police officer?
I think that was fairly obvious: to get away from him.
The story elicits no sympathy from me for Eddie
So I gather. I’m sorry you feel that way.


ThomasH writes:

I think we could take the money being used for "Wars" on drugs, terrorism, and excessive incarceration to invest in better lives of the poor. People will of course differ on what those investments are. But such investment should not necessarily be limited to savings from wasteful government spending.

Sam Haysom writes:

The fact remains David Henderson that I can't think of the last time libertarians insisted on a rarely obeyed law being obeyed. It's hard for me to escape the conclusion that the libertarian logic runs law being flouted to that's a bad law. There's a reason libertarians spend a lot more time opposing drug laws than obamacare. Likewise libertarian opposition to drug laws has become a lot more lets just say vocal over the last ten years. I remember when it was a big deal for reason to run one pro-pot article a year. Part of that is it's a good way to curry favor with the left, but part of that is the path of least resistance inclination that seems to have overcome libertarians.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Sam Haysom,
I can't think of the last time libertarians insisted on a rarely obeyed law being obeyed.
I can, and, moreover, I can think of a rarely obeyed law that libertarians are in the forefront of advocacy for obedience: the law that says Congress has the power to declare war. We’re actually better at this than almost any other group.
There's a reason libertarians spend a lot more time opposing drug laws than obamacare.
I’m not sure your assumption is true. We spend a lot of time opposing ObamaCare. Both will do a lot of harm.
I remember when it was a big deal for [R]eason to run one pro-pot article a year.
Me too. I think the reason, so to speak, is that many of us think we’re close to having an effect on the drug war, something many of us didn’t think, say, 20 years ago.
Part of that is it's a good way to curry favor with the left,
Probably true to some extent. But actually, we’re way ahead of most leftists on this.
part of that is the path of least resistance inclination that seems to have overcome libertarians.
I’m not sure what this means.
Sam, I’m curious. Are you a libertarian? If not, what are you politically?

Sam Haysom writes:

No I'm not a libertarian at all. I am basically a social conservative. What I meant by path of least resistance was that when I was younger (I'm 26) and before I was born libertarianism had a truly quixotic and idealistic tint to it. Too often now it seems libertarianism is about taking an already emerging trend gay rights, drug liberalization etc. and then jumping a few steps ahead of what mainstream democrats and liberals are willing to countence (out of political considerations). When it comes to issue that would garner significant push back from liberals like obamacare or entitlement reform all of a sudden libertarianism becomes surprisingly gradualist and willing to work within the boundaries of the existing structure. I don't want to compare your position on open borders to Caplan's but it seems like someone so dogmatically opposed to managed borders would pair that with an equal level of oppositionn to the welfare state. Instead you get this kind of hand wave gesture well deal with that when we get open borders attitude. I'll add that I think this applies equally to the Paleocons who seem to focus most of their energies and self-congratulation on issues where the mainstream left does most of the heavy lifting for them like opposing the two wars. Bryan Caplan himself has touched on this when he pointed out how sympathetic the media treats him despite his extremism on the border issue.

That's an interesting example although I'd hardly say that it is flouted frequently. Especially as the constitution doesn't actually describe what a declaration of war is. Certainly to my mind Congress's authorization of force is a perfectly credible declaration of war. I don't want to argue in bad faith, but can you think of an example that's more analogous to actual law enforcement issues rather than constitutional ones.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Sam Haysom,
Thanks for your thoughtful response.
Different libertarians have different approaches. I think you’ve described our steps on gay rights, drug liberalization, etc. accurately. But these are gradualist the same way our views on the welfare state are gradualist. I had a professor at UCLA, George Hilton--about as mainstream socially as you can get--who said that people should be allowed to sell heroin in coin machines. I think they should. But I haven’t bothered saying that. Similarly, I think we should end Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid tomorrow. But I don’t typically bother saying that either. I work within the constraints. And the constraints, whether on ObamaCare or the drug war, are pretty tight.
But I do think, to the extent you’re attributing motives to me, that you missed my motive with this post: which is to get people to see the daily horror that the drug war has caused for a large swath of the population. Frankly, I wish the left, let alone the right, could see it as clearly as Tyler and I do.

Fake Herzog writes:

Professor Henderson,

Thanks for taking the time to respond to me.

Obviously in a combox I didn't lay out the case for why banning the sale of narcotics makes sense. But since you mention it, I'm curious, as to your position on the following:

(1) what evidence do you have that the sale of heroin (and other "hard drugs") over the counter, via 'vending machines' won't cause more harm than good?

(2) as you know from economics, harms can be both seen and unseen -- libertarians like to highlight horror stories of lives ruined by harsh laws making narcotics illegal. But surely you can appreciate the fact that at least some good comes from those harsh laws -- there are at least some people on the margins who would try narcotic drugs and ruin their lives if the drugs were made legal. This article tries to give you a sense of how many lives:

http://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-drug-policy-roulette

(3) related, how will you protect children from the harm? [I know this can be done via public health campaigns, but it seems harder to me when the substance is legal...how many years and lives lost did it take before we waged a successful public health campaign against smoking?)

NZ writes:
The author refers to the American ghetto as "one of the last repressive regimes of the age." Current drug laws have helped to create and maintain these social structures without appearing to have done much to limit substance abuse.
With this, Cowen reveals his ignorance about the subject matter:

Federal drug prohibition will celebrate its centennial this December. Yet, black Americans were on their way to middle-class stability for the first half of that period (up until the Civil Rights era, with the turning-down point around the mid 1960s).

To believe that a system of laws that had no significantly deleterious effect on blacks' socioeconomic mobility for the first 50 years suddenly turned around and repressed them for the next 50 is to inculpate anything and everything. It is as meaningless a statement about our drug laws as it is about the problems facing black people.

If you want to point to something that changed around the same time we instituted the "daily hell of the war on drugs", look no further than global-interventionism.

This also, by the way, explains why the Right took up the drug war when it did--just about the same time the GOP was infiltrated by the global-interventionist Neocons.

John Smith writes:

Seems to me that Eddie chose to be a criminal. Let's say the government decides to make owning a Pilot G-2 model pen a felony and this became very well-known for whatever reasons and carries a high penalty with high levels of enforcement.

I am pretty confident that people who still insist in carrying such a pen are the type of people who should be locked up anyway, purely as a matter of public policy. These people will just substitute one form of crime for another.

If you legalise drugs, they will probably go thrill seeking / profit seeking elsewhere. True, you can probably stop a lot of marginal criminals. But to me, they are all criminals.

Btw, I support your stand on legalisation. I just don't think the criminals deserve much, if anypity.

ThomasH writes:

@NZ

My view is that the War on Drugs, like the War on Crime and later the War on Terror were basically just political tactics that were adopted when it seemed expedient and will be dropped when they are no longer so. This has already happened with opposition to same sex marriage and partially with the War on Crime since the costs of incarceration have risen.

NZ writes:

@ThomasH:

But that just sounds like a truism about politics. It tells us nothing about the peculiarities of drug prohibition, which has gone through many rallies and reignitions, and has been handed off from one side of the aisle to the other, accompanied by other developments in policy.

Meanwhile, you imply that it is simply political expedience that made politicians support or oppose drug prohibition and other causes--meaning that at heart they had different beliefs. I don't believe this is true.

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