David R. Henderson  

Causation

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Which cause should we focus on?

One of my favorite editorial writers for the Wall Street Journal, Mary O'Grady, writes (in "A Terrorist Big Fish Gets Away" in the August 11 print edition):

America's voracious appetite for illegal drugs has allowed violent political actors to create powerful transnational criminal organizations.

That statement is true but potentially misleading.

Notice that the subject of the sentence is "America's voracious appetite for illegal drugs." This is the cause. But what if Americans had that same voracious appetite for those drugs but the drugs were legal? Then, as Mary well knows because she has written some excellent editorials on the subject, that appetite would not "create powerful transnational criminal organizations."

So what would I want her to focus on as the relevant cause of the criminal organizations? The illegality of the drugs. Here's my rewrite:

Because the U.S. government has made many drugs illegal but Americans still want those drugs, organized criminals provide them.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Handle writes:

"Because the U.S. government has made X illegal but Americans still want X, organized criminals provide them."

A truism, but I submit that there are some X's for which this construction starts to sound absurdly arrangeed despite its truth.

"Because the U.S. government has made the production of child pornography illegal but Americans still want new child pornography, organized criminals create and provide it."

At any rate, just because a product is legal doesn't mean organized criminals won't try to perform regulatory arbitrage by avoiding taxes and try to provide the product as a lower price. That happens today with cigarette smuggling, and moonshiners who wouldn't pay the revenuers even after the repeal of prohibition are another historical example.

"Because the U.S. government taxes X to suppress overconsumtion, but Americans still want cheap X, organized criminals provide it through smuggling and by evading taxes."

ThomasH writes:

There are lots of bad laws but the problems come from trying to enforce them. The War on Drugs, like the War on Crime and the War on Terror are all enforcement trying to wrong foot the opposition party. A few or even a lot of misguided local police chiefs could never have created the international drug cartels-terrorist alliances.

charlie writes:

Question for the drug legalization people--is it an equal outrage that oxycontin, morphine etc are outlawed without a prescription and not sold over-the-counter for recreational use?

vikingvista writes:

Charlie,

You are asking about an outcome. The outrage is what government agents threaten to do to people who engage in that (or any other) peaceful fully voluntary activity.

David R. Henderson writes:

@charlie,
No. It’s an outrage, but it’s not an equal outrage. The harsher the penalties and the more options that government makes illegal, the greater the outrage.

vikingvista writes:

Handle,

You are right that the laws of economics don't care what your or my particular ethics are. But those same laws tell us, do they not, that the more vigorous that legislation attempts to prohibit societal laws, the more vigorous the black market will tend to be. If your goal is human welfare, this is useful to know whether or not you approve of a particular type of trade.

sam writes:

Both are causes rooted in human psychology.

Some humans are addicted to psychoactive chemicals.

Other humans are addicted to puritanical crusading.

Both types of addictions date existed in prehistoric times. Every society no matter how ancient has had taboos on food or other ingested substances.

Nathan W writes:

For the reason that the voracious appetite would exist regardless of the legal status, I prefer to refer the this category of products as "drugs which have been classified as illicit".

It's a far more honest way of presenting the situation. It does not necessarily in itself argue that they should be legalized. But it very much presents it as a social decision which has been historically taken in the 20th century, and implicitly that there may not be an inherent evilness of them.

The evil, imo, is the fact that some of these drugs which have been classified as illicit have legitimate medical applications, whereas many vulnerable populations are effectively driven into the ground by the laws nominally designed to help those populations.

Laws which hurt people in order to help them are probably not very effective at achieving their target objective of helping people. I argue that helping people is more effective at helping people than hurting them.

LD Bottorff writes:

Child pornography laws are not enforced the same way that drug laws are enforced. If you are caught with small amounts of illegal drugs for your own consumption, you will probably not go to jail. If you are caught with small amounts of child pornography for your own consumption, you will probably go to jail. Child pornography cannot be made without victimizing someone, so both buyers and sellers are prosecuted.
For drug use, there seem to be a lot of people who think that the drug users are the victims, and the drug sellers are the criminals. So, most of the law enforcement efforts are focused on the suppliers rather than the consumers.
Regardless of how you feel about legalizing drugs, the policy of focusing on only one side of the transaction is not likely to reduce drug traffic. It is likely to enrich those who learn to deal in drugs without getting caught.

triclops writes:

@Nathan,
I think your description is better, but I don't think it accurate to say society chose to make certain drugs illegal. It implies a rationality and analysis that is definitely not there. From the anthropomorphism of saying society "chooses" to the dishonesty, extralegal maneuvers, and hysteria that were used by early drug warriors to outlaw such drugs, it doesn't make sense to use "choose".
Not sure that I have a better alternative though.

Phil writes:

It is both the appetite and the illegality. David's version eliminates the severity of the problem by removing the adjectives. I see nothing misleading with O'Grady's phrasing. If the appetite were not voracious, there would be no need for powerful criminal organizations. Illegal begets criminal, yes; but voracious begets powerful.

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