November 3rd, 2006


Irrational authoritarians

Randall Parker recently posted about research which demonstrates that chronic coke users have a damaged ability to perceive differences in monetary value. I took issue with his cheerleading for the drug war that prefaced the article:

Periodically I like to harp on the damage that addictive drugs do to brains because some libertarians (and not a few economists) imagine that we all have enough free will to make rational decisions about addictive drug use. I take a more evolutionary approach to humans and free will. Our capacity to think rationally is spotty at best and there are elements of our modern technological societies that we are so maladapted to handle that we are like dogs that want to chase cars. When dogs do it they get injured or killed and we are no different. We aren't wired up to handle some products of our societies and it is naive to pretend otherwise.

And libertarians like to remind authoritarians, that if irrational individuals make bad decisions, they suffer most of the ill-effects themselves. When irrational politicians make bad decisions, a) the ill-effects are imposed on everyone in the country b) the politicians are often well-insulated themselves from the costs they impose on everyone else so they have minimal incentive to change. There is abundant evidence that when you try to transfer decision-making power from the former to the latter, you end up with worse results than if you had left people alone to make decisions for themselves.

Geez, when I was a kid my parents used to take in wards of the state. We got one 7 year old girl whose mother was a junky. The girl's brother, born to mom while she was a junky, had birth defects and had mental problems. What were the costs to these two kids? The costs did not just fall on Mom. They fell on the kids and the state.

Yes, and you'll note that I wrote "...if irrational individuals make bad decisions, they suffer most of the ill-effects themselves."

And it's true. To be sure, drug abuse affects the community at large to some extent, due to absenteeism, crime, welfare claims, and accidents. But most of the ill-effects (lost job, poor health, birth defects in her children, lost custody) are suffered by the junkie herself. Those that are not, are suffered primarily by her children. Those are powerful motivators to change behavior. If a government policy fails, what pain does the politician feel?

Remember that drug prohibition has tremendous externalities too. In 2003, the U.S. spent $19 billion dollars on drug prohibition (just think of how big a fence you could build on the border for that much money!) (1) How much labor productivity was lost by the prisoners incarcerated on drug charges (86,000 in the Federal prison, 265,000 in the state prisons)? (4) Much of the Taliban government was financed by the sale of heroin. (2) And much of the crime associated with drug use is not due to the drugs per se, but to the prohibition of drugs. (3)

To make the case that drug prohibition is worthwhile, even on a strictly economic basis (leaving aside, for the moment, the costs to personal liberty), you would have to show that the costs that would've been imposed by those who would otherwise take drugs, absent prohibition laws, outweigh the costs of prohibition itself. I don't think that you, nor anyone else, can do this.