Saturday, December 15, 2007

Costs of Prohibition

Clayton Cramer has an interesting post on drug prohibition and related issues in which he makes a number of very interesting points. It's well worth reading in full, even if you disagree, and I may come back to it in the future, but for now I want to focus on one issue. In discussing the experience with alcohol prohibition, Cramer makes this point:

As I have mentioned before, cirrhosis of the liver rates fell roughly in half within a few years of the start of Prohibition. They came back up again (although not as quickly) with a few years of the end of Prohibition. Pretty clearly, alcohol consumption, and especially the regular, high consumption of alcohol associated with cirrhosis of the liver, fell because of Prohibition. Whether the other negative consequences of Prohibition (such as gangsters and corrupt politicians) was too high of a price to pay is a legitimate question. It is also a legitimate question whether Prohibition disproportionately discouraged those drinkers who weren't the social problem. I rather suspect that people that had the occasional beer before Prohibition, or some wine at home with dinner, weren't the ones hitting speakeasies--and they weren't the problem that Prohibition was trying to fix. But let's not pretend that prohibiting a commodity doesn't affect consumption rates.

First of all, I concede that of course prohibition, whether of alcohol (then) or illegal drugs (now) does affect consumption rates. When you raise the price of something, you have less of it -- that's darn near close to a universal truth.

That said, "gangsters and corrupt politicians" weren't the only cost associated with alcohol prohibition, though it is the one that libertarians tend to talk about the most when discussing the parallels between alcohol prohibition and the current War on Drugs. Rather, one of the costs was that people who wanted to drink were prohibited from doing so. Clayton is right that "people that had the occasional beer before Prohibition, or some wine at home with dinner, weren't the ones hitting speakeasies--and they weren't the problem that Prohibition was trying to fix." They may not have been "the problem Prohibition was trying to fix" -- although Temperance crusaders, like drug warriors, weren't big on the distinction between recreational and abusive uses. But so what? It was illegal for them, too. And because they were, for the most part, law-abiding people who enjoyed some beer or wine but were perfectly willing to do without, they generally did without rather than incurring the risks of breaking the law. And they were thereby deprived of the experience of having a bottle of wine among friends over dinner. Taking that pleasure away from people -- well it's obscene.

I am fully aware that alcohol has very real social costs. And yes, I think that Al Capone and the other gangsters and hoodlums who prospered during Prohibition were indeed a good reason to do away with it. But the infringement on liberty alone was sufficient reason to object to prohibition. I enjoy having a glass of wine with dinner from time to time, or a beer with my pizza, and I don't see why I should be deprived of that pleasure because some people cannot drink responsibly.

Likewise, the War on Drugs has very real costs, some of which I've touched on before. I think those costs are good and sufficient reasons to get rid of the war on drugs. But that's not the only reason. For the most part, I think I think that taking now-illicit drugs is a bad choice, and if the sorts of drugs that people now use recreationally were legalized, I doubt I'd partake in them. But that would be my choice. People who decide to use heroin or meth might well be throwing their life away, making a very poor choice. But it's their life, and their choice. They should have the freedom to make it.


society girl said...

Libertarian discussions about drug legalizations are polly-anna clap trap becuase, like you, they leave out a crucial fact: an individuals "choice" to use illegal and harmful drugs are not just choosing to through their own lives away -- but they are imposing costs on the rest of us. The costs of the welfare state, when they collect unemployment because they are fired, workers compensation when they are injured at work becuase they are high, social security disability insurance, medicaid/medicare, all the welfare benefits their children recieve becuase the parents are high and can't hold a job. The cost of crimes drug addicts commit because they cannot earn enough money to sustain their habit. The personal injury and property damage costs when they are in an accident or a doctor who is high cuts in the wrong places. Drug legalization is simply a dream - and a bad one - unless we first (1) reduce or eliminate welfare benefits for persons who make such bad "choices" as doing drugs, drinking alcholoh or smoking cigarettes; and (2) revoke federal and state privacy laws which prevent or limit situation where employers can conduct random drug testing (or restict me from insisting my surgeon or lawyer produce a clean drug test). Since these two things will NEVER happen...I say...GET OVER IT!! And lets talk about some real issues that we may be able to have some impact on.

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