Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
John W. PayneThe Oppressed Heterosexual Male
Posted at 11:14 pm on August 6, 2010, by John W. Payne

Back in April, Cato Institute executive vice president David Boaz wrote an article for reason castigating some libertarians for looking to a supposed libertarian golden age–usually sometime in the late eighteenth or late nineteenth century–and claiming that we have become dramatically less free since those halcyon days. Boaz conceded that the government has grown in terms of GDP and interferes with many aspects of our lives that it did not in the past but argued that many Americans are freer now than they were then: both slavery and Jim Crow are dead; women are far more autonomous than they once were; gays and lesbians are now capable of loving whom they choose fairly openly; etc. These changes are partly attributable to government policies but also owe a great deal to radically different cultural norms. In a similar vein, I would like to argue that heterosexual men have actually lost some of their freedom because of a more restrictive culture…but probably not in the way that you think.

Until the late nineteenth century, the concept of sexual orientation did not exist. Homesexual acts, especially those between two men, were harshly condemned and punished, but those acts were not part of a broader identity. At the same time, marriage did not have the central role that it does in our culture today. Extended family, communities, churches, political parties, fraternal orders, and intimate friendships all demanded far more loyalty from individuals than they do currently. It was commonplace, and sometimes even expected, for these intimate, same-sex friendships to be emotionally closer than marriages. Writing in the New York Times a few years ago, historian and author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage Stephanie Coontz explained the vastly different sociological terrain:

From medieval days until the early 19th century, diaries and letters more often used the word love to refer to neighbors, cousins and fellow church members than to spouses. When honeymoons first gained favor in the 19th century, couples often took along relatives or friends for company. Victorian novels and diaries were as passionate about brother-sister relationships and same-sex friendships as about marital ties.

The Victorian refusal to acknowledge strong sexual desires among respectable men and women gave people a wider outlet for intense emotions, including physical touch, than we see today. Men wrote matter-of-factly about retiring to bed with a male roommate, “and in each other’s arms did friendship sink peacefully to sleep.” Upright Victorian matrons thought nothing of kicking their husbands out of bed when a female friend came to visit. They spent the night kissing, hugging and pouring out their innermost thoughts.

Similarly, Neil Miller, author of Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present, wrote that romantic–but not necessarily sexual–relationships between young men in nineteenth century America were relatively common and considered to be “rehearsal for marriage.” During the Civil War the situation was such that when Walt Whitman–who would almost undoubtedly be considered “gay” by contemporary standards–worked as a nurse at Armory Square Hospital in Washington D.C., he openly showed physical affection to the soldiers under his care. In a letter to a friend from the hospital, Whitman wrote of one soldier that he had grown deeply attached to: “Lew is so good, so affectionate–when I came away, he reached up to his face, I put my arm around him, and we gave each other a long kiss, half a minute long.” I have no idea if this kiss was platonic or sexual for the young soldier, and that’s really beside the point. What is remarkable is that physical affection between two men was pedestrian enough that it raised no eyebrows in a crowded army hospital. I’m fairly certain that today, a public 30 second kiss between two men in a military setting would not only lead to harassment from other soldiers but also a possible undesirable discharge from the service.

If we look back even further in our cultural history to Elizabethan England, Shakespeare’s plays celebrate friendships between men that strike many modern readers as, well, a little gay. Most famously there is Hamlet’s address to the skull of his friend Yorick, “Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft,” but this is hardly an isolated case. For another example we can look to deep friendship between Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. As Shylock attempts to take his pound of flesh from Antonio, Bassanio declares that he loves Antonio above everything in the world, including his wife:

Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself;
But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem’d above thy life:
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you.

Most contemporary readers likely find something unusual about Bassanio’s love for Antonio, but until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, this kind of deep, same-sex friendship was celebrated as equal to or greater than married love.

So what changed? Obviously, such a massive shift in cultural norms has multiple causes, but I think one critical factor was the emergence of sexual orientation as a concept. Once people started speaking about the love that dare not speak its name, people could no longer deny its existence, which immediately made all physical affection between men (and to a lesser extent women) suspect. When there was no concept of homosexuality, only sodomy was verboten, and that was hard to prove. However, once homosexuality became an identity, almost all non-violent physical contact and even most emotional intimacy between men could be seen as evidence that a man was “like that” to his peers.

Once that was established, almost the only socially acceptable place for a man to find emotional intimacy was in a romantic relationship with a woman–a complete historical anomaly. Of course, there were never any laws passed that prohibited intimate friendships between men, but the social stigma of even being perceived as gay has served as a severe limitation on the liberty of men to form deep, lasting friendships and express physical affection with each other throughout the twentieth century and to this day.

In the last decade, however, American culture has once again come to celebrate intimate friendships between men, albeit without most of the physical affection common over a century ago. The most obvious example of this phenomenon can be seen in many of the so-called “frat pack” movies such as Old School, Superbad, and I Love You, Man. While the male characters in these movies are primarily heterosexual and pursue women in the films, the heart and soul of the movies is in the deep friendships they form between each other. I Love You, Man is the most overt about this theme, suggesting that even if a man has found a woman to marry, he is still incomplete without a male best friend.

This is no doubt a positive development, and we can hope that the stigma attached to male-male intimacy will evaporate as quickly as it first appeared. Still, it is a great irony that that anti-gay social opprobrium arguably restricted the emotions and behavior of gay men less than straight men. In much the same way that slavery binds not only the slave to the master but also the master to the slave, bigotry constrains the liberty of both its target and the bigot.

Filed under: Culture
Comments: 5 Comments

John W. PayneIn Government, Every Day Is Opposite Day
Posted at 12:24 am on July 30, 2010, by John W. Payne

There is a brief but important article in Wired on how regulations designed to protect small investors have made it impossible for them to seek out attractive investments in non-public companies, and it’s worth quoting extensively:

Here’s a hot stock tip: Buy Facebook. Sure, the company’s valuation has bounced around over the past six years, but now it’s believed to be around $20 billion and likely to keep climbing. If you buy a chunk of Facebook and flip your shares in a few years, you could make millions.

Oh, but wait: You can’t. Facebook isn’t a public company. The only people who can invest in it already are millionaires.

The hot IPO market of the 1990s, which allowed Regular Joes to buy stock in new companies, has been replaced by a rich insider’s club that trades in pre-IPO equity sales. The middle-class folks who daytraded their way through the dotcom boom are now locked out. And that’s a problem. The current government regulations just make the rich richer, and they block alternative avenues of investment at a moment when funding is hard to find. It’s time to change the rules.

Here’s how the current system works: Even though no IPO is in sight, a company can still give contractors, advisers, and employees equity to keep them fat, happy, and working. But SEC rules limit the number of shareholders to 500. To get around this, talent can be granted something called restricted stock units, which they can get without being official shareholders. Then the contractors, consultants, and employees who leave the company can sell their vested stakes privately in what’s called a secondary market. “We have seen explosive growth in the private market across dozens of different companies,” says Barry Silbert, CEO of SecondMarket. “We are on track to do $500 million in private-company transactions this year.”

But the Securities and Exchange Commission doesn’t let just anyone buy shares in a corporation that hasn’t gone public. Pre-IPO sales are limited to “accredited investors,” people with a demonstrated net worth of $1 million or a yearly income of $200,000. It’s been that way since 1982, when Rule 501 of Regulation D of the Securities Act went into effect. The measure was intended to protect less-informed investors—widows and orphans, in Wall Street parlance—from gambling away their savings. So who has bought pre-IPO Facebook stock? A reported 10 percent of the company went to the Russian investment group Digital Sky Technologies, whose backers include one of that country’s richest oligarchs. In other words, the extremely wealthy.

I get very tired of saying this, but it will never cease to be true, so I will keep at it: the government is the primary tool by which the rich and powerful preserve their riches and power, and whenever a law is passed for the purpose of helping the weakest in society, it will be manipulated to the advantage of the strongest. These problems are systemic and intractable because the powerful have the time and money to invest in keeping their stranglehold on the political system. No matter if they are monarchial, communistic, or democratic, governments all prop up some set of oligarchs.

Link via Hit and Run.

Filed under: Regulation, Unintended Consequences
Comments: None

John W. PayneVote for Sandwich
Posted at 10:21 pm on May 26, 2010, by John W. Payne

This series of fake political ads for a sandwich are some of the best satire I’ve seen in a while, and they remind me of this article I wrote for The Washington Witness at Washington University before the 2004 presidential election.

John Kerry and the Other White Meat

by John W. Payne

In August 2003, I was sitting in a friend’s living room, watching the news, and commenting on Presidential politics.  I believed that President Bush’s chances at re-election looked slim.  I argued that if the situation in Iraq continued to deteriorate, as it has, and if people continued to perceive the economy’s performance as lackluster, which by and large they have, then a ham could defeat him next November.  I continue to maintain this position, but I have since realized that John Kerry’s bid to unseat the incumbent has thus far been sub-ham.  Allow me to explain.

One of the most accurate and widespread criticisms of Kerry is that he has repeatedly contradicted positions that he held earlier in his candidacy, or put more colloquially, he flip-flops.  Originally he supported the war in Iraq by voting to authorize the president to invade, then he decided the war was a bad idea, and then he said he still would have voted for it even knowing all that we know now, and so forth ad nasuem.  Of course Bush shifts his rhetoric frequently as well, most pointedly when offering brand new justifications for his war now that Saddam’s WMD have proven non-existent.  The difference between the two is that Bush’s horde of mantra chanters has successfully connected the name “John Kerry” and the term “flip-flopper” in the average American’s mind, while Bush still seems firm in his convictions.

Now compare these problems to what a ham would face.  The ham, being inanimate, would not take a single position on any issue publicly, let alone multiple positions.  It could not be called a flip-flopper, waffler, or any other childish epithet brewed up by Karl Rove.  The challenger’s campaign would rely exclusively on 527s and unofficial supporters to assassinate Bush’s character and claim whatever position happened to be popular at the time for the piece of pork.  If any of these positions turn out to be unpopular later, they can be denounced by an official campaign spokesperson as “inconsistent with the ham’s principles,” without actually having to specify what those principles are.  The campaign would only take official positions in October when it became clear exactly what people want to hear.  The ham would never hold an unpopular position, and it would never change its mind; a wiser and more resolute leader could not be found.

The other widespread, and far less accurate, attack on Kerry’s candidacy to emerge so far in the race was launched by longtime John Kerry hater John O’Neill and his group of Republican partisans known as The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.  The conflicting stories offered by Kerry and the Swifties are tedious and irrelevant to contemporary events, not to mention that Kerry’s story is, with the exception of spending Christmas in Cambodia, probably correct.  The point is that after having made his military service the centerpiece of the Democratic Convention, he should have expected his record to be attacked regardless of the truth.

However if the ham were in Kerry’s place, it would not need to worry over such matters.  Its past consists only of trifling matters: at one time the ham was part of a swine which was eventually slaughtered, the ham was then removed from said swine, prepared and packaged.  These events are not politically provocative, and the ham would not feature them during the convention.  Instead the ham’s campaign manager would encourage the Democrats to bash Bush relentlessly and with outright malicious methods.  They could claim he eats newborn children, or that he is actually a hermaphrodite, or they could just run the video of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein over and over.  The specific claim is unimportant just so long as one message comes across: George Bush is wrong about everything, everyone who advises him is equally wrong, and they all lack the ability to do anything right.  It would be very simple.

If John Kerry loses this election, the fault will lay fully upon him.  Unemployment is higher now then when Bush arrived in office.  Bush sold America a war of necessity in Iraq that was later exposed as one of choice and has since turned uglier than almost anyone predicted.  He has upset his own fiscally conservative base with deficits, tariffs, and the largest expansion of Medicare in the program’s history.  Stepping into such a situation, how could Kerry lose?  Put simply, he has given Americans no reason to believe they know what he thinks about anything.  With a ham at least people know it does not think at all, and in the worst case scenario it can be eaten by a needy family, but with a person whose thoughts are a mystery, anything is a possibility.

As of late, Kerry is on the attack in speeches with some fairly consistent criticisms of the war and Bush’s economic policies, but he should have been saying these things from day one.  If Kerry had taken a position, any position that George Bush did not hold, and stuck to it since his campaign started he would be easily ahead in the polls right now, but as it stands, it seems the ham still makes the better choice.

Videos via Radley Balko.

Filed under: Politics
Comments: None

John W. PayneThis Just In: No Return Seen on Futile Endeavor!
Posted at 11:53 pm on May 19, 2010, by John W. Payne

The AP ran a an article last week highly critical of the drug war that everyone should read in its entirety, but this quote from former drug czar John Walters really my eye:

“To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven’t made any difference is ridiculous,” Walters said. “It destroys everything we’ve done. It’s saying all the people involved in law enforcment, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It’s saying all these people’s work is misguided.”

Yes, that is exactly what critics of the drug war are saying, but Walters is seriously delusional if he believes this is any kind of defense of the drug war.  Just because thousands of people have expended lots of time and resources on fighting the drug war doesn’t mean it’s had a positive impact or that it ever will.  It’s like he believes in some kind of bureaucratic labor theory of value.  Walters refuses to even consider the notion that the whole effort has been a counter-productive  waste, which I suppose is understandable given that it might mean admitting that he has been a massive force for evil in the world.

Walters should familiarize himself with the old saying about hoping in one hand and shitting in the other because he would have one very full hand by now.

Filed under: Drug Policy, Nanny State
Comments: 1 Comment

John W. PaynePutting the “Free” in “Free” Market
Posted at 12:04 am on April 19, 2010, by John W. Payne

The left wing caricature of a market economy presents rapacious businessmen monopolizing resources and raising prices to further enrich the wealthy while crushing the poor and middle class. There are a multitude of problems with this notion, but the primary one is that the market almost always discourages monopoly and drives prices down for the benefit of everyone except the firms that cannot compete. Even more remarkable is that in many cases the downward pressure on prices actually reaches its logical conclusion of firms giving away numerous goods and services for free (i.e. at a zero monetary cost to consumers).

One often overlooked example of this phenomenon is the near total availability of condiments at fast food restaurants. Salt, pepper, ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, and more can be taken in large amounts whenever you make an order. When I was still in college, I stockpiled those little packets to use at home so that I didn’t have to pay for them at the grocery store. I’m sure this seems insignificant to most people, but that’s only because the market has made these goods so abundant that we take them for granted. In ages past, salt was such a valuable commodity that it was used as money, giving rise to the expression “worth your salt.” And it was demand for other spices like pepper that sent Europeans scrambling across the world 500 years ago in an effort to reap the enormous profits they could bring. It is nothing short of amazing that what was once so expensive that thousands of people would risk their lives to procure it is now so abundant that we don’t even give a second thought to people giving it away.

A similar, if more high tech, example of the same phenomenon is the plethora of restaurants and coffee shops that now give away free WiFi internet access to anyone who wants it. Most of these places don’t even require users to make a purchase, operating on the belief that the longer a person stays in the store, the more likely they are to buy something. If you have a laptop, you can now access the greatest store of information the world has ever known as much as you want for free, all thanks to the free market, which forces businesses to compete by enticing potential customers with such fringe benefits.

You might object here that the cost of these goods is included in the price of a meal, so it isn’t actually free to the consumer. That cost is negligible, which is why they give the stuff away, but the point is true enough, so let me give you a few examples where the user never has to spend a dime to reap some pretty enormous benefits.

Many of the internet’s most powerful tools are completely free to users. Without search engines, the internet would be of very limited use, but despite being so valuable, they are almost all free because if one tried to charge people would very quickly migrate to a free alternative. Facebook allows individuals, businesses, charities, and all other manner of like-minded groups to set up free profiles and communicate with each other. I regularly chat on Facebook with friends across the country and the globe. Two generations ago, such instant communication wasn’t available at any price, but now it’s just part of an average day. The major search engines and Facebook rely on advertisers to provide their revenue, so you only pay for those services if you buy something through one of their ads.

Furthermore, even these ads typically benefit the consumers. Because the advertisements are generated by a computer program based on information given by the user, they are more likely to be of interest than the average TV or radio commercial, and if a person buys a product because of the ad, he is made better off, provided it meets his expectations. To give a personal example, I discovered the service Groupon, which sells daily coupons to local businesses with steep discounts, through an ad on Facebook. I have eaten numerous meals for around 50 percent off thanks to Facebook, a service that I enjoy for free.

Now contrast these remarkable market achievements with the government. The free market is providing numerous, highly valued goods and services at no cost to the consumer. On the other hand, the government provides many “services” that I don’t even want (e.g. the drug war, the war in Iraq, illegal wiretapping) and never for free. Why anyone would ever prefer the latter to the former is beyond me.

Filed under: Economic Theory, Market Efficiency
Comments: 7 Comments

John W. PayneA Perfectly NORML Event
Posted at 11:33 pm on April 15, 2010, by John W. Payne

Last Saturday, I spoke to the annual convention of the Missouri chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) on the economics of marijuana legalization, and I was thoroughly impressed by the event. This surprised me because I halfway expected all the participants to be so high that they couldn’t follow a supply and demand graph. I joke, but the attitude is born out of experience.

I attended several NORML events back in college, and there was always a NORML contingent whenever Students for a Sensible Drug Policy brought in a speaker. There was never any tension between the groups to my knowledge, but I was always more than a little underwhelmed by NORML as an organization in those days. I think it might have been the guy that got up and sang a marijuana themed version of the national anthem after Mike Gray spoke that began my disillusionment with the group, but it wasn’t just that. At times it seemed that dreadlocks and a distinct odor of patchouli was a prerequisite for membership in NORML, and members often crossed the line between advocating an end to marijuana prohibition and simply advocating the drug itself. There were always members of NORML that I respected and thought really cared about the issue, but I long ago ceased to think of them as a very serious organization.

That changed on Saturday. Most attendees were dressed well, and no one ever suggested that world problems could be solved if everyone would just get high. Certainly a large percentage of the people there used marijuana, but the vast majority of them looked and sounded like responsible individuals, not the stoner caricatures I had often encountered in the past. The speaker lineup was also superb, featuring a couple ex-police officers, the current mayor of a Missouri town, a former district attorney, and a number of defense attorneys. Finally, there were a number of African-American participants, which was heartening given the disproportionate impact the drug war has on black communities and lack of minority involvement I had seen at previous NORML events. (NORML is hardly alone among drug law reform groups with this problem, however.) In short, what I saw on Saturday was a far more disciplined, professional group fighting to legalize marijuana. If this is a national trend, the prohibitionists should be very worried.

Filed under: Drug Policy
Comments: 2 Comments

John W. PayneDoes This Count as Optimism?
Posted at 12:02 am on April 7, 2010, by John W. Payne

Cato Institute executive vice president David Boaz warns libertarians against the imagined limited government utopias of America’s early days that were actually far less libertarian than today in many important ways:

If we look at the long term—from a past that includes despotism, feudalism, absolutism, fascism, and communism—we’re clearly better off. When we look at our own country’s history—contrasting 2010 with 1776 or 1910 or 1950 or whatever—the story is less clear. We suffer under a lot of regulations and restrictions that our ancestors didn’t face.

But in 1776 black Americans were held in chattel slavery, and married women had no legal existence except as agents of their husbands. In 1910 and even 1950, blacks still suffered under the legal bonds of Jim Crow—and we all faced confiscatory tax rates throughout the postwar period.

This is vitally important information to keep in mind.  Sure, there was no Federal Reserve, income tax, or drug war in 1800, but the government still did plenty of unspeakably awful things back then.  Of course, some people go too far in the other direction and claim that we have only gotten freer over the years.  Although there might be a general trend towards liberty in the last four centuries or so, that trend has never been constant, and it is in no way a necessary fact about the world.

I truly believe that we can make it to a society of maximum individual freedom, but we won’t get there by looking for it somewhere in the past.  Certainly we can and should make use of the past to show the tragedies of state control and the successes of civil society and the market, but to the best of our knowledge, there has not yet been a completely free human society.  A few have come close, and many more recently have allowed people to be freer than the vast majority of humanity that has ever lived, but freedom is an idea that still has yet to be tried in its totality.

Cross-posted at Rough Ol’ Boy.

Filed under: Uncategorized
Comments: 3 Comments

John W. PayneThe Wire and Public Choice
Posted at 11:12 pm on April 1, 2010, by John W. Payne

N.B. I wrote this post a few weeks ago for my personal blog before I changed the site to a new server, and it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.  I happened to really like this one, so I went through the trouble of retrieving it and thought it was worth sharing here.

I finished season two of The Wire last night (yes, I know I’m way behind on this one), and I thought there was a particularly interesting point about why governments fail running through the whole season.  While the show is essentially an in-depth study of how different institutions fail, I think this one might warrant a little drawing out.  (This post will not really have spoilers as such, but if you haven’t seen it, you likely won’t get it, so it might be time to stop reading now.)

The whole reason for the detail’s existence in season two is because Major Valchek is angry that Frank Sobotka and his union gives a more substantial gift to the church they both attend than the police union.  It is nothing more than a personal vendetta, which just happens to uncover a massive criminal conspiracy.  Furthermore, if Valchek had his way, the worst of the conspiracy would have remained hidden just so he could pursue one of the least guilty members of it.

Public choice economics holds that one of the major problems with government is that politicians and government employees do not cease to be self-interested once they become part of the government.  They do not pursue some mythical “common good” but their own profit, and Valchek is the perfect illustration of that.  To use one of his phrases, Valchek “couldn’t give a hairy-ass fuck” about some ideal like law or justice.  For him, being a police officer is about rising within the organization as far as possible and abusing his power to get what he wants in the outside world.  There are many “natural police” who do care about doing the right thing, but they are always crushed by the organization, while the Valcheks and Burrells rise to the top.  And so it is with every governmental organization.  Political decisions are almost never made with an eye to the costs and benefits of the whole society but merely the costs and benefits to the politician or bureaucrat.

Contrast this with the gangs in the show.  While there is a great deal of personal animosity between some groups (e.g. the Barksdale and Proposition Joe), it can almost always be set aside if it becomes necessary for the sake of business.  At the end of the season the Greek says “Business.  Always business,” and it’s a perfect statement for the mentality of almost all the gangsters on the show.  They do some truly awful things to keep their business functioning–usually because of the black market nature of their businesses–but it is rarely for any personal reason.  Their organizations exist for one reason: to sell a product that people want.  If they lose sight of that, they will cease to exist.

However, the police and other government organizations only theoretically exist to enforce laws and mete out justice.  In reality they have as many different missions as there are personalities involved.  What benefits one division of police, almost inevitably hurts another, so the organization can never be organized because no one can agree on its goals.  The police can only muddle forward, fighting each other almost as much as they fight crime, while even if the gangs are feuding, the shit makes it to the street.

Filed under: Drug Policy, Economic Theory, Market Efficiency
Comments: None

John W. PaynePrepare for Cake Prohibition
Posted at 12:04 am on March 31, 2010, by John W. Payne

A group of scientists are now claiming that fatty foods could be as addictive as so-called “hard drugs” like heroin and cocaine:

Binging on cheesecake and Ding Dongs can make you chunky – and turn you into a junkie…

Florida scientists looking into the causes of obesity let lab rats gorge round-the-clock on cake frosting and sweet treats, as well as bacon and sausage, and discovered that it triggered addiction-like responses in their brains.

To maintain their food-induced highs, the rats consumed more and more fatty treats – and got obese in the process.

Well, if drug warriors were consistent we would.  I know there are groups out there calling for taxes and other legal restrictions on junk food, but I think we will be spared outright bans in this case because there is no way to easily define the potential criminals as “other.”  Unlike with drugs, which were usually criminalized for reasons of race and class, almost all of us overindulge our appetites from time to time.  And even if we do not personally engage in such behavior very often, we are undoubtedly close to people who do.
What this really shows is that there is nothing more innately harmful about cocaine and heroin than there is about ice cream and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.  The difference is in how the government treats these products.  The market for junk food is legal, so contracts are not enforced with street violence.  Prices for such goods are not driven through the roof by prohibition, encouraging users to spend all of their time securing their next fix and often turning to petty theft or worse to attain the means for it.  And most obviously, millions of sucrose addicts aren’t rotting away in a cage because of a personal vice.

So what will it be drug warriors: legal cocaine or criminalized cookies?

Cross-posted at Rough Ol’ Boy.

Filed under: Drug Policy, Nanny State
Comments: 3 Comments

John W. PayneMore Bans Won’t Deter Use, but Will Increase Costs
Posted at 10:51 pm on March 23, 2010, by John W. Payne

Early last month, Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. called for reforms of our criminal justice system, including incarcerating fewer nonviolent offenders. Price argued that such changes would both decrease recidivism and save the state money by decreasing prison budgets, and he was widely applauded by editorialists across the state for his stance. However, when a bill to ban K2, a chemical used as a synthetic substitute for marijuana, received its first public hearing little more than a week later, newspapers were equally eager to support the restriction. It should not be necessary to point out that increasing the number of nonviolent offenses is not obviously compatible with decreasing the number of nonviolent offenders behind bars. Furthermore, although enforcing a ban on K2 would require spending additional tax dollars, it is unlikely to lower the rate of drug use significantly.

According to Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, federal, state, and local governments spend more than $44 billion per year in their attempts to stop people from using certain drugs. It is difficult to determine exactly how much money is spent on specific drugs, but given that there were 847,863 arrests for marijuana during 2008 — half of all drug arrests — it is safe to say that spending on marijuana enforcement is higher than for any other drug, and far out of proportion to the dangers of a drug that is relatively innocuous in comparison to most others. Still, despite the billions of dollars spent and millions of people arrested over the years, legal restrictions on marijuana appear to have had little to no impact on decreasing its use.

Although exact statistics for the period during marijuana’s initial prohibition are impossible to come by, when it was first outlawed in 1937, its use was confined almost exclusively to Mexican immigrants in the West and only a tiny proportion of the population had ever smoked it. Marijuana use skyrocketed during the 1960s, when simple possession still typically triggered jail time across the country. As use of the drug continued to increase throughout the 1970s, some states began decriminalizing marijuana possession, indicating that marijuana use tends to influence the law — not the other way around. The 2008 Monitoring the Future Survey, published annually by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, concedes that “A study of the effects of decriminalization by several states during the late 1970s found no evidence of any impact on the use of marijuana among young people, nor on attitudes and beliefs concerning its use.” The report does go on to note that some more recent studies find that teens living in states where marijuana possession is decriminalized are more likely to smoke marijuana, but this correlation does not indicate causation. As noted earlier, the idea that higher use rates drive decriminalization is a better fit for the timeframe, and it could also be that a third variable — such as wider adoption of more socially liberal views — help to cause both decriminalization and higher rates of marijuana use.

As of 2009, 102 million Americans — a third of the population — have used marijuana, according to estimates from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Almost all of them did so after marijuana was made illegal 73 years ago. Clearly, the law does not stop people from obtaining and using marijuana. Usage rates have changed dramatically over the years, but those changes are driven far more by wider social changes and shifting attitudes than by any law. Only politicians could be so vain as to believe their dictates are the guiding force in the lives of millions of people.

A ban of K2, or of any similar drug, will not stop people from becoming intoxicated in some politically incorrect way. In fact, given that K2 is being sold primarily as a legal substitute for marijuana, banning it may simply send K2 users back to marijuana use, an outcome that I do not believe the bill’s supporters intend. However, if people truly enjoy K2, no law passed by a legislature will ever repeal the law of supply and demand. Market forces will provide consumers with the goods they want — even illicit ones. Banning K2 would increase the already stratospheric costs of enforcing our drug laws, without making an appreciable dent in drug use. Reasonable people would laugh such proposals out of the legislature, but when it comes to the war on drugs, we abandoned reason a long time ago.

Filed under: Drug Policy, Regulation
Comments: 2 Comments

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson






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