Scott Sumner  

What's so funny?

The Environmental Continuum: ... The Ubiquity of Useless Learni...

It's interesting to think about what society views as funny, and what it does not. Comedians make lots of jokes about drinking alcohol, but you generally don't see jokes about serious crimes like rape. (In the rare cases where they occur, the comedian is usually scolded.)

Where do drugs fit in? A few days ago I was listening to a comedy show on NPR, when they interviewed the musician George Clinton. He had lots of amusing stories about dropping acid back in the day. At one point he was asked if he had completely stopped using drugs, and did admit to getting a medical marijuana card. When they asked what illness he suffered from, he said he told the doctor that he was a recovering crack smoker. Of course the NPR studio audience was laughing uproariously at all this humor.

So let's think about how our society thinks about drugs, alcohol and rape:

1. Alcohol ruins millions of lives, but drunks are often funny.

2. Drugs ruin millions of lives but druggies are often funny.

3. Rape ruins millions of lives. Not funny.

Now lets think about how our society treats each sin:

1. Alcohol: Legal for adults.

2. Drugs: Thousands imprisoned for drug violations, often for long periods of time.

3. Rape: Thousands imprisoned for rape violations, often for long periods of time.

I suspect our society has a double standard here. Perhaps we think that our middle class kids should not use drugs, but if they do they are not hurting anyone else. It's not like rape. They are only hurting themselves. Prison is not appropriate. And celebrities we love should be encouraged to get rehab, and if they clean up we can even elect them president. But if members of the underclass use drugs or sell drugs, they should be put away, so we don't have to deal with them.

George Clinton is a well-liked musician, so his drug use is humorous. But the guy who sold him these drugs is (apparently) very evil, and must rot in prison. He probably doesn't get the joke.

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COMMENTS (29 to date)
Rajat writes:

Let me have a go. Drug users often don't hurt other people when they ingest; they often just have a good time, especially if they're middle-class and have developed a reasonable degree of self-control. However, sometimes people do do bad things when they ingest; or they do bad things to get the cash in order to get drugs. Drug suppliers often do bad things to protect their businesses, although perhaps some (or many) of these things wouldn't happen if drugs were legal and regulated. What this boils down to is that there is no public policy rationale for punishing the typical non-violent non-stealing moderate drug user. He or she generally doesn't hurt anyone. But there is a public policy interest in punishing violent or potentially violent drug users and there is also a rationale for punishing drug suppliers, who might either do bad things themselves or cause a fraction of their customers to do bad things. No one would be laughing at Clinton if he owned up to hurting someone while on drugs. And on the comparison to alcohol, although inebriated people cause a lot of harm, I doubt it is as much as if the same proportion of the population were able to freely access illicit drugs such as heroin or ice. One can't ignore the long history of alcohol in western societies either, as an explanation (if not an excuse) for the double-standard.

SaveyourSelf writes:

Scott Sumner wrote, “…kids should not use drugs, but if they do they are not hurting anyone else…They are only hurting themselves.”

This statement can—almost—never be true. To call someone a “kid” implies he is not self-sufficient. He is someone’s dependent. Therefore his self-injury is also injury to his guardian.

If you remove the word “kid” and replace it with “adult” then the statement can, potentially, be true in a non-socialist culture. In socialist cultures, where the society has chosen to bear the costs of medical care for every citizen regardless of the cause, then injury to self ALSO harms society. Thus, there is almost no circumstances where kids or adults, “are only hurting themselves,” with drug use.

hanmeng writes:

According to Drug harms in the UK by David Nutt, alcohol causes far more harm than other recreational drugs, which are mostly illegal.

And isn't a lot of the harm caused by the others likely due to their very illegality? Indeed a double-standard.

Lars P writes:

We are on the tail end of the War on Drugs. Public opinion has turned, and prohibition is slowly being rolled back.

I suspect Clinton would not have made that joke, or gotten that laugh 1-2 decades ago.

Steve J writes:

SaveyourSelf are you saying making drugs legal would cost the government more than keeping them illegal? I thought cost reduction was one of the advantages of drug legalization.

sards writes:

SaveyourSelf: Why do you think that people necessarily harm themselves when they use drugs? After all, in the vast majority of cases, when people use drugs, they don't intend to harm themselves; instead, they think the drug use will be beneficial to them in some way. Drugs can help people achieve goals such as: relaxing, having more fun at parties, increasing focus, experiencing euphoria, etc. Of course all of that comes with a non-zero risk of addiction and other undesirable side effects. But on the whole, I don't see why drugs should be considered harmful.

Nyarlathotep writes:

Stand-up comedian Mitch Hedberg was a known drug user, and made lots of jokes about it ("I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to do as well.") Anyway, he died of drug overdose - that was a great punchline.

Tracy W writes:

Is this a middle-class/under-class thing, or is this a "people I know/don't know" thing. What do the middle class think when the child of some middle-class parents that they don't personally know gets caught taking drugs? What would the middle class like to do if that unknown child was selling their own kids' drugs? What do member of the underclass think about their own versus other people's kids being imprisoned for taking drugs?

In all probability, my grandmother would have excused her sons if they had committed mass murder, that doesn't mean that she was in favour of mass murder, just that she had a blind spot the size of Africa about her offspring. (Not all parents do, my other grandmother was very loving but rather more clear-eyed.)

And rape may not be funny, but sex is, even though it can go wrong and ruin lives (eg STDs). The obvious distinction is voluntary/involuntary.

stubydoo writes:

[Comment removed for crude language. Sorry, but you can't use crude language on EconLog, not even if you are quoting someone else's usage, as, say, in a joke.--Econlib Ed.]

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

The costs of drug use, the costs of illegal drug use and the costs of having massive black markets in drugs are usually compounded together in the minds of supporters of prohibition.

The problem is that the "War" never seems to come anywhere close to being won. I suspect that, more than anything else, is undermining the prohibitionist case.

Jeff writes:

Perhaps the double standard arises from the distastefulness of profiting from other people's pathologies. A person who uses drugs is harming himself, but a person who sells drugs is profiting off someone harming themselves, and my goodness, isn't that just awful?

Scott Sumner writes:

Rajat, But under prohibition there was a great deal of violence associated with the sale of alcohol---so the "violence" argument actually points to legalization.

I agree that the long historical tradition you mention is a factor, but it should not be.

SaveYourself, Yes, but how often do moms think "My child is hurting me with their drug use, hence I want them to go to prison"?

Tracy, Yes some parents have that blind spot, but not all, as you say.

Scott Sumner writes:

Jeff, That's probably part of it, but it's horrible reasoning. People are just as addicted to money as to drugs, indeed perhaps more so. Many of the "yuppies" of the 1970s who used cocaine at parties eventually stopped using the drug, but they never lost their lust for money.

But the ingrained distaste for commerce surely plays a role here, just as with prostitution laws, bans on selling kidneys, etc.

Tom West writes:

Obviously enough, bans and punishment are fundamentally socially determined rather than based on any particular basic principles.

University undergrads and bloggers like us like to pretend that principles are the basis behind our laws, but let's face it, as a society, we "know" what should be banned, and then search for the appropriate principle to justify the ban.

I love to play the game of reasoning out how things *should* be based on priors and logic, but it's important not to confuse it with how things *will* be, based on how humans actually behave.

A clear-eyed anthropologist would be far more useful here than any number of us rationalists. Probably more use in figuring out how to manipulate society into achieving the policy we desire, too.

JSW writes:

Not to sound provincial, but James Wilson's point needs to be addressed: "[Educated people] talk about the 'costs' of drug use and the 'socioeconomic factors' that shape that use. They rarely speak plainly—drug use is wrong because it's immoral and it is immoral because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul."

While the same might be said for some drinkers, the frequency of self-enslavement to alcohol would seem to be much lower (amongst whites and blacks, at least).

As for what is or isn't funny, many well-adjusted people can find humor in all manner of depravity. It just so happens that rape jokes made by those who are not members of designated victim groups attract an army of "twitter activist" types. On the other hand, Sarah Silverman can make an anti-semitic rape joke and she's not exactly blacklisted ("I was raped by a doctor... which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.").

Sieben writes:

First, let me point out that rape is frequently considered funny when it happens to men. Recall the old joke about dropping soap in a prison shower. I can also recall several instances on TV shows where it is implied that men are raped, usually because they are careless or naive.

Rape of women can never be considered funny because both feminists and gender-traditionalists take the issue very seriously. But this isn't unique to rape. Serious violence against women is frowned upon, whereas violence against men is often funny or exciting.

Overall there are definitely lots of "double standards" if you think all human beings should have equal social standing.

Hazel Meade writes:

I'm going to say something fairly scandalous:
There is no objective reason why rape should ruin anyone's life (at least not the common date-rape type of rape) other than (a) how the person who is raped chooses to react, and (b) how society treats the person who is raped.

Now, I'm pretty confident that part (b) isn't that much of an issue these days. We're way past shaming women who have been raped (I hope).
So the remaining factor is really that the person who gets raped reacts in a way that LETS IT ruin their life. And that is because we have created this bizarre cultural preconception that rape is the worst thing that can ever happen to you. In other words, we seem to have abandoned Victorian attitudes towards rape when it comes to how society regards rape victims, but retained them with respect to how rape victims are expected to regard themselves.

Wouldn't it all be a little more modern to regard rape as part of a continuum of physical assault, so that rape victims can treat it more like having been beaten up, instead of having this idea of omg-you-must-want-to-kill-yourself-from-shame level trauma expected from them?

Tiago writes:

This graph should give some evidence in favor of your hypothesis:

Floccina writes:

I think that the reason that recreational drugs were banned is not the reason that they are still banned. USAers are funny about laws. Once enacted many believe that people should obey them and that if they go to jail it is their own fault. There are many laws that exist today that I think would not pass now. Even if all drugs were made legal I bet that they would not want all the drug convicts let out.

Also some supporters of the war on drugs often argue that we need to keep possession illegal so that we can convict violent people who we would not otherwise be able to prosecute. I have heard this referred to as a Legermoron (sp?)

What amazes me is that recreational drugs are illegal in so many other country.

khodge writes:

Humor is too personal to generalize as you are doing here. A child of an alcoholic parent would not laugh at alcohol jokes. I have little first-hand experience with marijuana smokers so I can only laugh at marijuana stereotypes. I would most likely not enjoy the humor that an NPR select crowd would enjoy. Even to JSW's point: only part of the audience would accept the humor while many of the audience would make extra effort to avoid Silverman in the future.

genauer writes:

I had to edit my comment on

to conform with the blog rules

but I feel that my assessment on some new finance minister is very adequately reflected in the

decision of the ECB (after meeting Mr Varoufakis in person) to cut Greece immediately off the money tap

just google WSJ "ECB suspends Greece" or words like that

Rajat writes:

I don't know much about America's experience with prohibition, but I assume alcohol was widely consumed beforehand. This means both that (1) there was a huge unmet demand for alcohol during prohibition and (2) the extent of harm caused by alcohol consumption was fairly well-known. I think with hard drugs, the public probably thinks that (1) the unmet demand is relatively low so prohibition is less impracticable and (2) the potential harm from more widespread consumption due to greater legal and social acceptance is unknown and potentially very large. For example, the violence caused by ice consumption is often random, which freaks people out. I don't know how safe I would feel walking down the street if I knew that people could buy and consume ice or heroin legally for a fraction of its current price.

ThomasH writes:

I think that on the margins that are being joked about, not even alcohol is harmful (and so is funny like many very small problems) and of course pot is even less harmful than alcohol.

SaveyourSelf writes:

@Steve J

  • I wasn't making any cost argument, only harm. Regarding your question: it is not easy to know whether legalization would save money for the government. It would certainly lower police and jail expenses but health care costs would undoubtedly be higher.

Sards wrote, "Why do you think that people necessarily harm themselves when they use drugs?"

  • Some drug use causes no observable harm; some causes verifiable long term harm; and some causes immediate observable harm. Legalization is not a reliable way to reduce the risk of harm of these substances. Opiates, for example, are legally prescribed as pain medications. They help some people with pain but they also contribute the lion’s share of the 17,000 deaths each year in the USA from opiate overdose.

Scott Sumner wrote, "Yes, but how often do moms think "My child is hurting me with their drug use, hence I want them to go to prison"?

  • I'm not a mom, but I suspect there are not many mom’s who think in those terms. More likely they think along the lines of, "It is painful to watch my child suffer," especially if their efforts to help are ineffective. That assumes, of course, that the mom is aware the child is using drugs, cares, and is not the person buying the drugs for her kid.

  • Regarding your concern about a “double standard:” it occurs to me that an observed double standard could be explained by who bears the cost. If the government has to bear the cost of an injury, then the government will necessarily use force to try and prevent that harm and those costs. The government is nothing if not force projection, after all. Everything looks like a nail when you only have a hammer. On the other hand, if an individual can afford to pay for his own mistakes, then the government has very little cause to get concerned or get involved. I suspect the apparent bias towards imprisonment of lower income people vs wealthy people for similar crimes is a reflection of this difference in who bears the cost of injury.

  • The obvious implication of this hypothesis is that, if you want to make recreational drugs legal, you must first eliminate government subsidized healthcare.

guthrie writes:

Scott, you are misunderstanding a fundamental aspect of humor. A drug user or drunk, telling a story about themselves, is almost always losing status in a manner which absolves the audience from feeling sorry for the storyteller. Most such stories do not end with killing someone else in a car accident.

Rape is always an aggressive, devastating act against another human being. As George Carlin demonstrated, rape can only hope to elicit humor when the subjects are detached from reality and the situation is absurd (his example used cartoon characters).

Humor has nothing whatsoever to do with how 'society thinks about (or deals with) drugs, alcohol, and rape.' It's not even necessarily who the storyteller is. It is the domain of social status and the skill of the storyteller to lower it while preventing pathos or sympathy.

If there is a societal double standard, it would also have to do with status. The higher your place in the hierarchy, the more leniency you are given for infractions.

Nick writes:

Drug enforcement is not a monolith. When an open air drug market begins to thrive in a poorer community it is not middle class outsiders clamoring for police action. It is law abiding citizens of that community who don't want that outside their door.
I imagine that the people calling in complaints to the police and showing up at community meetings don't consider drugs or alcohol very funny at all.
Richer people can afford to buy drugs at a premium, often paying for a nice person they know to to handle procurement from someone closer to supply. This makes the business more genteel--the action is occurring behind closed doors between people who know each other.
On a less serious note, not all drugs are funny. Painkillers and heroin especially are hard to make jokes out of. I don't mean people get outraged, it's just a very sad kind of addiction and people don't tend to chuckle about it.

Scott Sumner writes:

JSW, I'd guess more "souls" have been destroyed by alcohol than drugs.

Sieben, Good point.

Rajat, Yes, there is a fear of the unknown, but that can't be the entire explanation. I doubt it applies to pot, for instance.

And the public probably underestimates the costs of drug prohibition. Many people I talk to don't even know that the war on drugs has massive costs.

Saveyourself. You might be right, but the cost to the government of imprisoning 400,000 people is also quite high.

Guthrie, Maybe so, but in your first two paragraphs it seems like you are supporting my point, drugs are much more like alcohol than rape.

Nick, Suppose that Clinton had said "recovering heroin user" instead of "recovering crack user? Would the audience not have laughed?

Overall, however, you make some good points.

I honestly don't know how low income communities think about the police. Sometimes I think they are hostile to the criminal justice system that harasses and imprisons so many in their community, and at other times I think they want more "law and order" (as you suggest)" I'm not being sarcastic here, I honestly don't know enough about the subject to have an intelligent opinion.

Nick writes:

Well, at the risk of making a cliche out of myself, Ill give you some anecdotal evidence from when I was living in the eastern part of Crown Heigts in Brooklyn from 2008-2010. My neighborhood was frozen in mid-gentrification for two years. Many empty store fronts as owners tried to hold out for higher rent businesses catering to yuppies to return. Empty, gutted brownstones waiting for renovation everywhere.
The city budget had exploded two years in a row due to the state budget negotiations exploding. I can't remember all the details, but I recall something about a governor buying a lot of hookers and getting replaced with a career political hack who had to admit to using cocaine during his first day on the job. The state senate republicans were barely holding their decades long majority and I believe the whole thing was resolved in the end bc a state senator from the Bronx needed to get charges that he slashed a woman's face with a broken bottle in a public restaraunt dropped. So he changed parties and broke the deadlock. (law and order indeed)
But the city by then was missing almost three academy classes and they use the young cops for these 'community show of force' deployments so L+O policing was nowhere to be found in my neighborhood. A group was openly dealing right above the Franklin Ave Subway Station. You may not consider this odd, but that station happens to double as a police precinct from the old days when Transit and City police were separate. So this was going on literally on the police's doorstep.
Anyway sorry for the endless rambling rant. My point is, no one was happy about any of this. Sure you could say, 'hey you said you didn't like gentrification' or 'you said the cops were patting down too many people just for using the subway'. But that's a false choice. Most don't favor either option.

BikerDad writes:

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