The Three Axes and Drug Prohibition

In a conversation with Russ Roberts, Becky Pettit says

educational inequality has become so dramatic that among young black men who have dropped out of high school, a huge fraction of them, upwards of 2/3, can expect to spend at least a year in prison

She says that much of the increased incarceration in recent years is for drug offenses and nonviolent property offenses. To a libertarian, thinking along the freedom-coercion axis, it is drug prohibition itself that is offensive. Any time the government declares a “war” on anything, libertarians assume the worst. And they see drug use as a choice with which the government has no right to interfere.

Progressives have wanted to see drug users as oppressed, the victims of a bad environment and of “pushers.” Progressives see no problem in having government act to protect individuals from their bad impulses, in this case the impulse to take drugs. However, when it comes to punishment and incarceration, progressives would want to exempt users and focus on drug sellers. For progressives the idea of punishing those who profit from selling drugs has some merit (I could be uncharitable and say that for progressives the idea of punishing those who profit from anything has some merit).

To conservatives, both drug users and drug sellers are on the side of barbarism. Along the civilization-barbarism axis, the high incarceration rate among those involved in the drug trade probably looks more like a feature than a bug.

In this case, I find the libertarian freedom-coercion axis so compelling that I have difficulty seeing any merit in looking at the issue from the point of view of either of the other two axes. Perhaps I am not being sufficiently charitable. Along these lines, see the op-ed by Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy.

2 thoughts on “The Three Axes and Drug Prohibition

  1. “… I find [x] so compelling that I have difficulty seeing any merit in looking at the issue from the point of view of [y] …”

    Not that I necessarily disagree with your statement; however, for my present purposes, I find it striking for other reasons than an urge to concur or object.

    As a libertarian, I am unhappy with what seems to me a tendency amongst my political friends to ignore those parts of (ultimately political) reality that are so messy and probably impossible to tidy up (within a reasonably foreseeable future, or ever) that the option of facing this fundamental impasse is (half-consciously) deleted from the range of possibilities, as it threatens to blur the clear cut contours, the neat standard of liberty.

    As a consequence, I have recently focussed my attention on the question why markets are incapable of supplanting certain forms of interaction characteristic of the political realm. One of the most basic reasons why, is contained in the type of proposition quoted above.

    Human beings create constantly what Rikers (“Liberalism vs. Populism”) calls “moral or political scarcity”: a need to take decisions for which (especially general, multitudinous) support is scarce compared to attaining the objective without encountering appreciable friction.

    Your quoted conclusion represents a cognitive pattern that fosters a state of mind prepared to deal with “political scarcity” by coercion. (I hasten to add that I do not mean to imply that you are championing coercion.) The coercion-triggering cognitive pattern may be generated cynically and viciously, unwisely und unnecessarily; and it may be owing to reasons and motives that can be rectified or improved; however, irrespective of the quality of our character, morals or reasoning, there are also many occasions where we seem to have advanced to a vantage point of personally persuasive insight so clear cut and and immune to valid refutation that coercion appears an appropriate means of dealing with “political scarcity”.

    At any rate, my concern is a clearer perception of the reasons why markets cannot be expected to take care of everything, and that we are compelled to deal with much of the residual by organising or forcing consent that does not exist naturally.

    For some, the lesson may be: if something cannot be handled by the market, this does not automatically represent market failure. For others, the lesson may be: Do not expect the market to handle more than it possibly can, in all its beauty and power.

    My worry, of course, is not that markets may be less powerful than I thought; I am far more concerned that libertarians are insufficiently prepared to expose their convictions to the inevitably corrosive effects of real politics and statesmanship.

    As politics cannot be abolished, the best we can do is to cultivate, to humanely refine it; and considering the heritage of classical liberalism, libertarians should have a comparative advantage at it.

  2. I can, at a stretch, imagine the civilization argument. A country full of druggies seems bad; therefore, use the law to oppose having lots of druggies. Whenever I raise this issue with someone in favor of the drug war, they do seem to feel that without explicit law to the contrary, that’s what we’d end up with.

    As an aside, I get a similar response when I argue that felons should be allowed to vote. The response I get is that there will be a rash of murder-friendly law so as to appeal to the felon vote.

    Getting back to the drug war, I admit I have to stretch to imagine the civilization argument. Our high society is filled with drug use, and I think that’s okay.