If what we believe to be true is in fact false, we could end up making a bad situation worse. Since our deeply held convictions are rarely deliberately scrutinized, we run the risk of behaving like monkeys. A useful generalization that I have arrived at is that the structure of the world imposes truths that are counter-intuitive. Our untutored intuition is at times at odds with what the truth is. There are examples galore but here I will restrict myself to the “drug problem” which I had briefly alluded to in my post yesterday on Drugs, Death and Bad Servers.
We all know that illegal drugs are bad. That is why they are illegal, isn’t it, otherwise why should they be illegal? That’s assumption number 1. Ergo, anyone using illegal drugs is harming society. That’s assumption number 2. Therefore society has an obligation to fight a “drug war” to stop the use of illegal drugs. Assumption number 3. Minor assumptions 1: drug use can be stopped. Minor assumption 2: making criminals out of drug users will stop drug use. Minor assumption 3: a drug war is a good use of society’s limited resources.
As far as I can tell, all the assumptions above are to a large extent false, if not entirely false. Just because something is illegal does not make it harmful. Conversely, the legality of something does not imply that it is harmless. What is legal depends on the time and place. What is declared illegal at a particular time and place may have to do with the power structure of the society.
There are drugs that harm the user. Nicotine is a perfectly legal drug that causes immense harm, for instance. So also, alcohol ingested immoderately and over extended periods of time will definitely cause harm. But should a person who chooses to use alcohol in moderation in the privacy of his own home and does not harm another be prohibited from doing so? If you believe in the sanctity of the principle that a person owns himself, then you cannot support such a prohibition. It boils down to self-ownership. If you deny that, you are on the road to slavery and serfdom where others have the power to dictate what you are allowed to do to yourself. There be dragons.
One can arrive at the conclusions that illegal drugs are not unconditionally harmful, that they can be used without imposing social costs or negative externalities, that the wholesale prohibition will not work, that attempting prohibition will lead to immense costs through increased crime, etc, by simple reasoning alone. The case against criminalizing of drugs and the subsequent “war on drugs” gets really compelling when emprical evidence supports the theoretical conclusions.
We assume certain things to be true, which upon closer examination may turn out to be false, as I said before. Some people have spent a lifetime dealing with the issue of drug use and drug wars. They have had the time and opportunity to actually see what happens on the ground. All we have to do is to examine what they report and perhaps test our own assumptions. I once heard the police chief of (my one-time hometown) San Jose, California, Dr Joseph McNamara lay out the case for de-criminalizing drugs. A good starting point is Cops Against the Drug War. Here is a brief except from an article called Stop the War from another good site, Shaffer Library of Drug Policy, written by McNamara and published in the Washington Post in 1996.
A year ago, some of the nation’s top law enforcement officials gathered at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University for a two day seminar to ponder the drug problem. They concluded that the drug war was a failure and that more education and prevention would be better than more arrests and prisons. They recommended that a national commission be appointed to study the harm that the drug war causes and to consider alternative approaches to discouraging drug use.
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It is difficult enough to motivate youngsters in these areas to stay in school and find jobs in the few legitimate businesses in the inner cities. Easy drug money and glamour associated with the trade are creating well armed and vicious teenaged gangsters just as Prohibition did during the days of Al Capone.
Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman, doing a comparative analysis with homicide rates during Prohibition, estimated that as many as 10,000 murders a year are caused by the illegality of drugs. In addition, corruption of law enforcement, the legal profession and even the armed forces related to drug money is spreading.
The police chiefs are calling the drug war senseless and have been calling for the de-criminalization of drugs for years. Surely, they must be in league with drug lords, one might ask. Actually, the truth is that only the drug lords will be against the de-criminalization of drugs. Decriminalize drugs and the profits disappear.
By now you may be wondering what the war against drugs in the US has anything to do with the problem of India’s development. I was coming to that.
The reason I took up this issue was to illustrate the point that even reasonable people can hold views that are wrong and harmful if action is based on those views. A nation like the US suffers as a consequence of wrong-headed policies undertaken either out of ignorance or out of greed. But they are rich and they can afford to be stupidly wasteful of their wealth. A poor country, on the other hand, does not have the luxury of being able to afford wrong-headed policies.
Indeed, as I argue elsewhere, it is precisely because of a large set of wrong-headed policies pursued over a sufficiently large span of time that ultimately impoverishes a nation. For over half a century, India has followed an astonishingly stupid set of economic policies. Each individual policy may not have been catastrophic but when undertaken in a concerted fashion all together, has resulted in a rather pathetic nation of extremely poor people.
Is there a litmus test which one can apply to figure out which of our policies are likely to be flawed? Here is what I use. Is the policy being advocated by the communists? If yes, there is a 99 percent probability that it is extremely harmful. Will the policy result in more regulation and increased government intervention? If yes, then it is almost certain to be bad. Is the policy ostensibly “pro-poor”? If yes, then it is 100 percent guaranteed to promote poverty.
Like the people of the US have been brain-washed and scared into supporting a needless and wasteful war against drugs (and recently a war against Iraq), Indians have been brain-washed into believing that the government can create wealth through messing around in all sorts of businesses from running transportation systems to higher education to bakeries. It is time for more of us to understand the situation for what it is and de-governmentize society. And in doing so we will end up de-criminalizing the government as well.
It is all karma, neh?