Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Eric D. DixonTo Protect and Subvert
Posted at 12:42 am on January 24, 2012, by Eric D. Dixon

Public choice article of the day, from The Atlantic:

Roughly 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to healthy farm animals to foster rapid growth and make up for unhygienic living conditions. Many bacteria that live on animals adapt and transfer to humans, spreading superbugs that are often resistant to treatment.

For more than 35 years, the FDA has recognized that giving antibiotics to farm animals poses a risk to human health, yet the agency has done almost nothing to stop it. Indeed, it has mastered the art of making inaction look like action. Last May, NRDC and our partners sued the FDA to prompt it to take action. Instead, the agency retrenched.

It started by claiming the livestock industry could police itself. In our lawsuit, we asked the FDA to finally rule on two citizen petitions — one filed 12 years ago, the other six years ago — urging the agency to stop the use of antibiotics in healthy animals. In November, the FDA announced that although it shares concerns that the use of antibiotics to make animals grow faster is dangerous for humans, it would deny the petition because it was pursuing an alternative strategy.

This “alternative strategy” turns out to be just another name for the status quo. Instead of banning the use of antibiotics in healthy animals, the FDA is allowing the livestock industry to follow a voluntary approach. But we already know voluntary doesn’t work. The FDA has been operating under that model since 1977, yet the practice has expanded exponentially over the years. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house.

In December, the FDA tried to further justify its inaction by erasing the historic record. Back in 1977, the agency proposed to withdraw approval for the use of several antibiotics in animal feed based on findings published in two notices posted in the Federal Register. The notices containing the findings have been listed in the Federal Register for more than three decades. But just before Christmas a few weeks ago, the FDA pulled the notices. Soon after it buried its 35-year-old proposal, the agency tried to have it both ways. On January 5, it proposed banning off-label uses of a class of antibiotics known as cephalosporins on healthy livestock.

To be clear, although I’d like to avoid the consumption of antibiotic-treated livestock as much as possible, I don’t think the FDA should ban it — a clear overreach of government power.

FDAThe lesson here, though, is that when a government agency is tasked with protecting the public interest, public-sector incentives make it a near certainty that the agency will eventually instead collude with special interests in working against the public interest. Instead of serving the one function that is clearly useful for industry oversight — education and advice to consumers who can then make a more informed choice — the FDA has become a legal arbiter of illusory safety.

If the FDA allows a product or practice, the public at large regards it as safe. If the FDA disallows something, society assumes danger. But instituting a top-down decision-making process to centralize the level of risk that consumers should be allowed to take leads to a system that serves nobody well. Life-saving drugs are barred from being used by people who are more than willing to accept their potential hazards. The sale of healthy food is criminalized because of the mere possibility that it could make somebody sick, despite the fact that people can and do get sick from the FDA-approved alternative. And, as shown in The Atlantic, because people trust that D.C. paternalists are looking out for them, they carelessly consume anything that the FDA has let slip through its otherwise iron grip.

A bureaucratic overlord is incapable of choosing the correct balance between risk and reward even for the people in his neighborhood, let alone for more than 300 million strangers scattered throughout the country. There is, however, an alternative, as Larry Van Heerden noted in The Freemam:

The first step to correct these problems is to abolish the FDA, stripping the government of the power to approve drugs (and medical devices) for the market or to remove them from the market. Any rule-making for disclosure and lawsuits for fraud should be devolved to the states.

Even if the FDA were omniscient, objective, and impervious to outside influence, it would be wrong to give it the power to withhold drugs from the market. The proper function of government is to protect individual rights and guard against fraud, not to restrict freedom of choice to protect people from their own ignorance. In fact, the FDA has shown itself to be imperious, subject to prevailing political winds, and indifferent to the thousands of deaths and injuries it has caused.

[…] Forcing all consumers to live by rules that cater to the least responsible individuals imposes huge costs on everyone else and ultimately fails to protect even the willfully ignorant.

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]

Filed under: Corporatism, Drug Policy, Food Policy, Nanny State, Public Choice, Regulation
Comments: 2 Comments

John W. PayneWhat’s the Biggest Problem for Blacks in America?
Posted at 1:37 am on January 4, 2011, by John W. Payne

Linguist John McWhorter argues that it’s the drug war, and I’m inclined to agree:

…[W]ith no War on Drugs there would be, within one generation, no “black problem” in the United States. Poverty in general, yes. An education problem in general—probably. But the idea that black America had a particular crisis would rapidly become history, requiring explanation to young people. The end of the War on Drugs is, in fact, what all people genuinely concerned with black uplift should be focused on, which is why I am devoting my last TNR post of 2010 to the issue. The black malaise in the U.S. is currently like a card house; the Drug War is a single card which, if pulled out, would collapse the whole thing.

That is neither an exaggeration nor an oversimplification. It comes down to this: If there were no way to sell drugs on the street at a markup, then young black men who drift into this route would instead have to get legal work. They would. Those insisting that they would not have about as much faith in human persistence and ingenuity as those who thought women past their five-year welfare cap would wind up freezing on sidewalk grates.

There would be a new black community in which all able-bodied men had legal work even in less well-off communities—i.e. what even poor black America was like before the ’70s; this is no fantasy. Those who say that this could only happen with low-skill factory jobs available a bus ride away from all black neighborhoods would be, again, wrong. That explanation for black poverty is full of holes. Too many people of all colors of modest education manage to get by without taking a time machine to the 1940s, and after the War on Drugs black men would be no exception.

And in this new black community, young black men, much less likely to wind up in prison cells or caskets, would be a constant presence—and thus stay in the lives of their children. The black male community would no longer include a massive segment of underskilled, drug-addicted ex-cons churning in and out by the thousands year after year, and thus black boys growing up in these communities would not see this life as a norm. They would grow up to get jobs, period.

And something else these boys would not grow up with is a bone-deep sense of the police—and thus whites—as an enemy. Because there would be no reason for the police to prowl through his neighborhood.

That’s from McWhorter’s latest piece in The New Republic, and the whole thing is well worth reading. It should come as little surprise that policies created and implemented as a cudgel against minorities have disproportionately harmed them, and it’s long overdue that Americans admit to themselves that the drug war has never been about public health or safety but about persecuting cultural groups that middle class whites didn’t care for.

Cross-posted at Rough Ol’ Boy.

Filed under: Drug Policy, Law Enforcement, Nanny State
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John W. PayneAll Your Property Are Belong to Us
Posted at 1:31 pm on November 17, 2010, by John W. Payne

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Missouri Highway Patrol are attempting to seize a large tract of land in central Missouri known as Camp Zoe. The land is owned by Jimmy Tebeau, front man for The Schwag, the band that gives name to the Schwagstock festivals held on the property several times a year. The DEA and highway patrol allege that Tebeau knowingly allowed people to sell drugs on the property, but Tebeau has not been charged with any crime. Such charges are not necessary, however, because under the rules of civil asset forfeiture, it is the property — not the person, who has all sorts of troublesome rights — that is charged with the crime.

This procedure is rooted in medieval superstition — essentially, people believed that property used to commit a crime was haunted — and it biases the outcome in the government’s favor in a number of ways. First and foremost, in a civil case the government can win with a preponderance of the evidence as opposed to the much higher burden of a reasonable doubt necessary to convict a person of a crime. Also, because there is no person on trial, the owner has no Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and anything he says could be used later if criminal charges are ever brought.

Under Missouri state law, this seizure would be impossible because Missouri requires the owner to be convicted of a related felony before the property can be forfeited to the state. The feds are involved, though, so that minor detail becomes unnecessary. The Missouri Highway Patrol also stands to profit handsomely from pursuing forfeiture at the federal level instead of the state level, should they be successful. That’s because under the rules of equitable sharing, the federal agency will kick back up to 80 percent of the proceeds from the forfeiture, which — assuming Zoe sold at its $600,000 assessed value — would give the highway patrol up to $480,000. Property forfeited through Missouri state law must be given to a state fund for school construction in order to eliminate any incentive for police to enrich themselves by confiscating property, but the federal government has given them an easy way of working around the obvious intent of state forfeiture reforms.

The police allege that Tebeau knowingly allowed people to sell drugs at Camp Zoe. That’s a difficult allegation to prove, because unless they have proof that he was involved in dealing drugs — which seems doubtful, considering the lack of a criminal charge — it would require knowing his mental states. However, according to the official statements of the DEA and the Highway Patrol, the law enforcement agents deliberately allowed and contributed to the sale of drugs on the property. This highlights a contradiction in law enforcement goals caused by asset forfeiture. It seems that the police were pursuing the property instead of trying to prevent crimes. Undercover agents buying drugs could have arrested any dealers that sold to them on the property and made a show of it to deter other people from doing the same, but instead they chose to pursue a forfeiture case, in which they stand to gain over half a million dollars, by allowing people to sell drugs for four years.

Finally, I wonder how much property the feds could seize under the rationale that drugs are sold there by visitors. I think we can safely include every venue ever played by the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, the Flaming Lips, Government Mule, Phish, and Moe, among others. Furthermore, even land already owned by the federal government would not seem to be immune. Rainbow gatherings are held regularly on national forest land, and the Black Rock Desert where Burning Man is held is federal property. I don’t think anyone can credibly claim that the government doesn’t know what sorts of illicit activities can occur at these events. Simply put, if these are the legal standards, massive amounts of private property are subject to seizure anytime the DEA, or another federal regulatory agency, decides to investigate.

(Headline reference here for any of you who don’t remember the early 2000s.)

Filed under: Drug Policy, Law Enforcement, Property Rights
Comments: 4 Comments

John W. PayneLegalize Federalism
Posted at 1:57 am on November 9, 2010, by John W. Payne

The most disappointing outcome from last Tuesday’s election was the failure of Proposition 19 in California, which would have legalized marijuana in the state. Admittedly, the proposition was flawed. Legalization proponent and Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron argues that a provision that would have prevented employers from firing or disciplining employees for marijuana use unless it “actually impairs job performance”  frightened voters with the idea of a half baked labor force (like it isn’t already), and the failure to define how marijuana would be taxed left a fog of uncertainty hanging over the proposition. Furthermore, Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that the federal government would continue to enforce federal anti-marijuana laws likely gave many voters the mistaken impression that a Prop 19 victory would not change anything. That (mostly empty) threat just a few weeks prior to the election tracks pretty closely to when the polls turned against legalizing marijuana, and I think it was probably a decisive factor in Prop 19?s demise.

This debacle highlights the need for greater federalism in our political system. If the feds have to sign off on every state law, the drug war will continue forever because Lord knows there are only a handful of politicians at the federal level of either party willing to challenge the status quo. And, for many liberals, that’s just fine.

Take blogger Josh Marshall, for example. Marshall writes that he would have voted against the measure for two reasons: 1) Because he’s over 40 (translation: he doesn’t smoke anymore, and his friends who do are professionals who don’t have to worry much about arrest) and 2) because “unless I’m missing something, it amounts to nullification.”

Marshall is missing something because if Prop 19 amounted to nullification it would have demanded that state officials prevent federal law enforcement from enforcing federal laws. The proposition did no such thing; it simply would have removed state penalties for marijuana and left the DEA to try and enforce federal law as best they could. Regardless, Marshall’s centralist mindset reveals something very disturbing about many modern American liberals: they’d rather have a federal government of nearly unlimited powers rather than one with a defined and limited role, even when, by their own admission, the federal government’s policies harm millions of Americans.

Shortly after Kentucky Senator-elect Rand Paul won the Republican primary back in May, he made a controversial remark about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, essentially saying that the federal government should not prohibit private businesses from engaging in racial discrimination. This was almost immediately followed by a firestorm of liberal criticism that charged Paul with trying to thrust the country back to the Jim Crow South. I’m not interested in defending Paul’s statement at the moment, but I think it’s fair to say that even if that portion of the Civil Rights Act were repealed tomorrow, only a tiny fraction of businesses would attempt to return to racial segregation, and they would almost certainly be subjected to boycotts, protests, and all manner of bad press–and rightfully so.

There are, however, a set of policies known as the drug war, which serve to put literally millions of minorities in cages and turn inner cities into war zones. The best hope to challenge those policies is at the state level with reforms like Prop 19, but many liberal pundits seem more interested in preserving the overwhelming power of the federal government to enact countless utopian schemes than in ending this new Jim Crow.

There may have been a time when federal action was the only remedy for the horrors of segregation, but that danger is by and large in the past. Now the federal government is far more likely to imprison a young black man than to protect his right to vote from the Klan. If we want to destroy the system that is oppressing people in the here and now, we have to abandon the idea that the federal government is the primary protector of our rights, for it is the most powerful enemy any of us could ever know.

Filed under: Drug Policy, Federalism, Politics
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Wirkman VirkkalaProgressive Prohibition
Posted at 7:14 pm on June 9, 2010, by Wirkman Virkkala

From personal experience with self-styled “progressives,” I define Progressivism as the belief in no sort of progress, whatsoever, that is not tied to the growth of the state.

Historically, that’s not a bad definition, either. The Progressive Movement changed the Constitution of the United States with a series of amendments to the Constitution: The income tax, the direct election of senators, prohibition of sale and transportation of alcohol, and women’s suffrage. Each of these amendments grew government. (more…)

Filed under: Drug Policy, Nanny State
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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. 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

Wirkman VirkkalaThe Logic of Self-Medication
Posted at 3:25 am on April 5, 2010, by Wirkman Virkkala

I may disapprove of what you take, but I’ll defend till your death your right to take it.

The same sort of values and reasoning that support the right of free speech supports, also, the right of self-medication.

Because we have had free speech rights, but have lacked the right to self-medicate, the two rights seem (to many) the most distant of cousins, if not warring foes. To most folk, the idea of self-medication? Heaven (or the state) forbid: We must always be guided by doctors, who know better!


Filed under: Drug Policy, Nanny State
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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
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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

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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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