Eric recently provided this quote about Prohibition. One could equally relate it to the War on (some) Drugs:
“The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the Prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this.”
— Albert Einstein
(1879-1955) Physicist and Professor, Nobel Prize 1921
Source: “My First Impression of the U.S.A.”, 1921
Let’s— for a moment— assume that it is correct for our government to in some way regulate the drug trade. It’s not a view I support, but one could make a case that criminalizing (at least to the point of fines, not imprisonment) drug use could be a method of internalizing the externality. Drug abuse causes wider societal problems, and thus imposing some penalty on the user could be seen as a way of making users pay for the wider costs of their use.
IF— and again, this is not an approach I advocate— you treat drug use in this manner, it can be compared to another law that is widely ignored: the speed limit. Excessive speed is one of those problems which can lead to increased crashes and costs to society (note: I am not arguing that speed limits are set correctly). Thus, imposing fines on speeders is a way of both influencing behavior and imposing costs on those who create a higher risk to make sure they pay for the costs incurred by that risk.
Which makes me wonder: What if we enforced speeding laws like we enforced drug laws? Now, you all must think I’ve drank far too much tonight to suggest such a thing, but if Americans did not need automobiles to the extent they do in our society, it’s not that far-fetched. After all, it’s not that difficult for politicians to claim, based on the statistics, that cracking down on speeders would be for the children. The only reason that speeders are not treated this way is that speeders are not a minority, as drug users are.
So let’s think about it. What abuses of civil liberties have we allowed in the drug war? What will we allow in the “speed war”? You think red light cameras are bad? Over in Britian they already have speed cameras, ready and waiting to nail anyone above the posted limit. I’m guessing that if you really pursue it, you’ll have GPS tracking implanted into cars to ensure that they’re following limits. But that’s simply detection, and that’s only the start.
When you elevate a common crime to eeevvviiilll status, particularly a crime that most people don’t feel is necessarily “wrong”, you run into a problem. In order to continue to enforce the crime and stop the behavior, you must continually increase penalties. The only way to get people who don’t feel like what their behavior is wrong is to make the penalties so high, and the detection so severe, that nobody dares get caught engaging in that behavior.
We’ve already gotten to the point where cars, houses, and any other property “used” in the commission of a drug “crime” can be seized. What happens when we do the same for speeding? You’re caught speeding? Lose your license and your vehicle. That should cut down on it, right? If you create a BS law that nobody feels is legitimate, the only way to enforce it is to create draconian punishment!
Sounds like the drug war.
Now, let’s imagine the opposite. I’m not going to go full-on with the legalization of drugs bit. Sure, that’s where my true ideological roots lie, but let’s move on with the thought experiment. What if, as I proposed at the beginning, drugs crimes were treated the way we currently treat speeding?
When it comes to speeding, there are those people who are truly reckless. When it comes to drugs, we have people who cannot responsibly use drugs, and are hopelessly locked into abuse. But with speeding, we have different approaches to the guy doing 9 over on the interstate and the guy doing 110 in a sports car. It’s the difference between a $75 ticket and going to jail. We don’t have different approaches to the guy smoking a joint at home and the guy high on PCP terrorizing a grocery store. Both are treated as if their crimes are unforgivable.
If we treated nonviolent drug use as a minor crime, solved by fines instead of draconian imprisonment, we might see a rise in drug use. But I don’t know if we’d see much of a rise in drug abuse. And if we considered the penalties to be a monetary fine, internalizing the externality of the social cost of dealing with drug use, we would stop seeing the imprisonment (a much larger social cost) of nonviolent drug offenders. Giving a non-violent pot-smoker a $100 ticket is revenue-generation. Putting a non-violent pot-smoker into jail for a year costs taxpayers thousands of dollars. Which is closer to a positive transaction for society?
But politicians aren’t interested in reducing costs to society while increasing freedom. They’re interested in control. A never-ending “War on Drugs” allows them to continually ratchet up control while fighting a chimera. The only way they can continue this is through propaganda. Einstein knew a little something about the destruction of rights by government. He also knew about the propaganda that made the rest of the populace complicit in it. He was smart enough to get out before it was too late. Will we have such foresight?