“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

LI has never felt that visceral contempt for Nick Cohen, the lefty supporter of Bush’s invasion, that gives us an ulcerous pang when we read Christopher Hitchens – that feeling of watching something seedy and disgusting, a declining rhetor re-positioning himself to stay in the dinner line in D.C. We appreciated Cohen’s ferret like attacks on Blair’s administration, and we grew to expect the ferret in any position he took. But his newest article in the New Statesman
tears it – Cohen is officially on LI’s list of journalists who have devalued their worth to the ‘sell at a loss’ point.

This is, of course, a very long list. Cohen, we should point out, is not a journalist, but a columnist. The columnist has become a sort of hybrid creature – at one remove from a journalist, in that columnist rarely puts on the gumshoes and actually does fieldwork – when they do, they bring along an entourage and grandly embed themselves with the powerful; at the same time, the columnist is at several removes from the philosopher, since columnists rarely introduce any method into their opinions so that one could judge if they were right or wrong. Columnists cling to morality because morality isn’t as threatening as logic or method – it requires very little work, and leaves one, after denouncing some immorality or other, with such a pleasant glow of self-approbation that the uselessness of one’s entire profession doesn’t so bluntly obtrude on the consciousness over drinks..

Let’s quote a little Cohen. The column is about cocaine.

“Yet the more important point is Sir Ian's argument [Sir Ian is a highly placed cop] that "the price of cocaine is misery on the streets of London's estates and blood on the roads to Colombia". It may be true, as some have argued, that dragging lawyers and accountants out of Islington dinner parties would be a waste of police time. But it is also beside the point. Cocaine has spread wide and deep. The most recent figures from the British Crime Survey showed 624,000 people in England and Wales admitted taking it within the previous year, and 275,000 admitted taking it in the previous month. The real figures are probably higher. At £40 a gram and falling, it still is not cheap but it hardly fits Robin Williams's old definition that "cocaine is God's way of telling you that you make too much money" any longer. This is a drug for the many.”

Well, Cohen actually has a fact to deal with. There is a large market for cocaine. And he also has a quote contrasting Ian’s idea that “misery” in London is connected with blood in Colombia. Indeed. But is the misery in London, and the blood in Colombia, due simply to the selling of cocaine, or to its unsuccessful banning over the last seventy five years? This is a question of cause.

Don’t expect Cohen to deal with that. The romance of their being blood shed somewhere is what Cohen is after. With a vulturine moral pounce, he’s immediately on the side of the cops on the question.

Here’s how he does it. First, he contextualizes the question of the misery and bloodshed so that it seems to be like questions about buying ethical coffee or bananas.

“To the individual, ethical consumerism is an assertion of autonomy. You're not changing the world when you buy bananas from the Windward Islands or fair-trade coffee from Colombia, but you are refusing to accept its terms, as you have every right to do. But if an individual refusal is to have a political effect, it must become a part of mass boycotts and mass purchases. And it is at this moment that politics is in danger of slipping into fashion.”

Of course, this overlooks the wholly pertinent difference: officially, no sale of cocaine is legal. This renders his comparison silly and vacuous. But this is the job of the columnist: to avoid any discussion of the salient features of the social fact under discussion, and to lead it, by easy paths, back to the columnist’s hysteria of the moment.

This is all the more surprising in that Cohen’s column coincides, in time, with a BBC special about legalizing drugs. Plus, there was another cop on a BBC show recently who had this to say about heroin:

“One of Britain's police chiefs told the BBC last week that heroin ought to be legalized and was nicely reamed for his efforts by some of his colleagues, who all but called him a traitor to the cause. The brouhaha came about when North Wales Police Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom told the BBC Wales' political talk show Dragon's Eye on February 5 that current drug laws "do more harm than good" and he was prepared to see heroin sold openly.

"Heroin is a very, very addictive substance, extremely addictive, far more so than nicotine, but it's not very, very dangerous. It's perfectly possible to lead a normal life for a full life span and hold down a job while being addicted to heroin," Brunstrom told the BBC. "I don't advocate anybody abusing their body with drugs but clearly some want to. What would be wrong with making heroin available on the state for people who wanted to abuse their bodies? What is wrong with that?"

Indeed. So the locus of the argument, if Cohen were able to make an argument, can’t be the simple comparison of cocaine to bananas because, contra the headline of his article ( “They die for your right to snort”) – you have no right to snort. A little fixing of that headline – they die for your right not to snort – would not only be more factual, but would also get us to the heart of the matter.

Here, astonishingly, is Cohen’s argument against legalizing cocaine:

“The obvious riposte is that it is the insanely counter-productive war on illegal drugs that keeps Burma under the generals, Latin America terrorised by gangsters, the rich world's prisons full, the supply of lethally contaminated drugs flowing to customers, and burglars coming through your bathroom windows. Legalise drugs and the trade will pass from gangsters to respectable business people, prices will fall, health and safety standards will be met and the Treasury will pick up a useful new source of revenue for hospitals and schools.

Easy to say, yet it's hard for even the victims to accept full-scale legalisation. In 2003, the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez condemned the US intervention in his country's civil war, which is as much about drugs as politics, as "imperial voracity". He was quoted as saying that the only way out for the 400,000 refugees the conflict had produced was for the Americans to accept that they were wrong and for drugs to be legalised. But he hastily issued a clarification. He didn't want legalisation or to see criminals rewarded. "What I said is that the Colombian drama is such that, to be exact, it is not possible to imagine that an end will be put to drug-trafficking without consumption being legalised. That is the enormity of the tragedy . . . Colombians are having to suffer."”

There you go. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez is against it, it must be wrong!

This is mentally painful, the sort of babbling that one might expect from an idiot twelve year old, not from a highly paid columnist. Even more painful is that Cohen is typical – this, actually, is how columnists think. The argument from authority is almost the only thing they know. Thus, the continual quoting of experts, and the continual failure to analyze the arguments of experts.

Since we are on the topic, however - in 2002 we gave our readers an economic argument about successful and unsuccessful bannings. We thought we’d issue it again, for those who missed it.

First, let’s note that we never see a discussion of banning drugs that asks the question: what constitutes a successful banning?
Let’s give some characterstics, then.
Successful bannings (in democracies):
a. don’t carry a severe cost in terms of liberties;
b. are relatively easy to regulate;
c. don’t produce a continuous stream of offenders;
d. consider whether there are substitutes on the market.

So, let’s consider a product that was successfully banned in the U.S. DDT is a good example. There are no gangs selling DDT. There are relatively few cases of the manufacture of DDT discovered in this country. There are relatively few consumers of DDT spending time in your state prison.


It is pretty simple. Successful bannings are conditioned by the market.

Let’s quote ourselves:

“To speak of regulation is to speak of associations, institutions, and markets as the sites in which regulation is effective. It is not necessarily to speak of the state -- all associations, institutions and markets require some ordering, and this ordering is achieved by regulation enforced by some medium of governance. So, that's clear, I hope. We are going to speak of specifically state sanctioned regulation, because this post is supposed to be continuous with the last one, in which, you may remember, I laid out my disagreements with my friend X. about gun control. The aim, here, is to give some sense of the determining factors in the successful or unsuccessful state regulation of markets.

I'm going to use the term markets in an expanded sense -- markets, in my terms, will be taken to exist when a good or a service is possibly commoditized. That is, it can be exchanged. This makes it possible to talk of such things as the market in homicide, which is a service. That doesn't mean that all services or goods are marketed. Your kids could wash your car, because that is a family chore, or you can take your car to a car wash and have it washed. In one case, the act of washing the car is an extra-market operation, and in the other case it is a fully marketed service.

Given this expanded sense of markets, I'm going to use regulation as a term designating all acts by which the way in which goods or services are composed and offered are modified by the state. Traditionally, regulatory scholars, like Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer, have concentrated on the state's regulatory role in allocating goods and services, with less attention paid to the state's role in enforcing transparency, for example. We are going to leave the categories of regulation up in the air in this post, since our concern is with the general factors that impinge on the regulation of goods or services generally. Our parochial point, re gun control or the drug trade, is to show how these factors lead to successful bannings, or mitigate against bannings. Our thesis is simple: if the state tries to ban a good or a service without consideration of its popularity, abundance, and the existence of networks that facilitate the good or services production and distribution, the ban has a high chance of being inefficient, or pernicious to the preservation of civil rights, or counter-productive. We don't think that efficiency itself provides a metric that should determine absolutely the state's use of banning -- for instance, we think banning murder is probably inefficient, but we think the state should ban murder. However, when the ban is ineffective, injurious to civil liberty, and counter-productive (i.e, the objective of the banning is actually negated by the mechanism of the bannning), we think that banning shouldn't occur.

Before we contemplate bannings, as of guns or heroin or euthanasia, for that matter, we have to understand how the market in these things works. The way the good or service is integrated into a sector of the economy (for instance, is it a good, like asbestos, with mainly industrial uses?), the amount of the good that is potentially available (is it feathers from an endangered bird? or an easily grown plant?), the composition of the market for the good in terms of supply (do suppliers have an incentive to comply with the banning? is the banning such that the suppliers can sell the good to a certain market -- for instance, alcohol to adults -- or sell substitutes? Is there a large demand for the good? Is there a hardcore group within that demand pool who will take extraordinary risks to procure the good?) and finally, whether the enforcement of the banning is going to fall on the police.

It is the last named factor which strikes LI as the most neglected of all in the study of regulation. How good are the police as regulators? How good are they at enforcing bannings?

LI's contention is that they are very bad. There are reasons for this that are classically rooted in the literature on regulation. One of the objections to regulation of an industry on the part of the state is that the agents of the industry have more knowledge of their business than are available to the state. While this knowledge assymetry argument has some holes in it, there is also something to it. In the case of the police, we obviously don't want the police to be good at organizing murder -- but this outside status is going to work against their efficiency in enforcing the ban on murder. We accept a large margin of inefficiency here because the harm of murder outweighs the harm of the inefficiency -- the injury, for instance, to the civil rights of innocent citizens that often ensues in the course of a murder investigation. So if the police are our regulators of last resort, we don't want to abolish them all together. It does mean that before we want to ban a good or service, we should consider whether the police, if the onus of enforcement falls upon the police, are going to be good or bad at doing this regulatory task. And if they are going to be bad at it, whether that harm might not multiply harms in such a way that we are worse off than we were before the ban.

LI claims that this is the case of the total banning of a popular product like marijuana or handguns or cocaine. And that moralists like Cohen add immeasurably to the misery in London and the blood on the streets in Colombia by advocating a system that won’t work, the viciousness of which is visited on the heads of both the consumer and the middle men.

One other note and we are through. Usually, advocates of legalization envision a government monopoly on drugs. That is a nice moral fairy tale – but if you consider the reality of the drug market, probably that is not the way to go. Private producers and sellers of drugs will have as much incentive to enforce regulations vis a vis those drugs as sellers of alcohol have to enforce regulations vis a vis those drugs. The good thing about the private system is that, once legalized, it evaporates the incentive for violence. It is often pointed out by anti-drug side that there is still smuggling in cigarettes and alcohol. That’s true. But this smuggling does not entail a great deal of violence – in fact, there is much more violence involved in carjacking than there is in cigarette smuggling.

Thus endeth today’s lesson.

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