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September 2008
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The Conversation – Cato Unbound

The “Conversation” part of the Cato Unbound series we’ve been discussing has taken off in the past couple of days, with the following flurry of responses:

» Comments on Integrating Use into Life, Civil Disobedience by Jonathan Caulkins (which I discussed at length below).
» What’s Wrong with Pleasure by Jacob Sullum.
» Taxation and Specific Prohibition by Mark Kleiman.
» A License to Drink? by Jacob Sullum.
» Reductio ad Absurdum by Mark Kleiman.
» Not an Argument for Legalization by Earth and Fire Erowid
» Mark, Mill, and Me on Sin Taxes by Jacob Sullum.
» Realistic Policy Proposals Versus Hypotheticals by Jonathan Caulkins.
» Prohibition and Black-and-White Thinking Go Hand in Hand by Jacob Sullum.

Although Jacob does a decent job in [2] of expressing that “self-ownership is the source of all rights,” Jacob actually starts off by complimenting his foes, and then gets a little carried away in his magnanimousness by carelessly conceding:

If a particular drug consistently drove people to violence, for example, prohibiting consumption of that drug might be justified, since consuming it would be tantamount to an act of aggression.

This, of course, is ridiculous, because it’s an empty hypothetical. There is no such drug, nor would such a drug become popular, and laws against violent behavior would still be the proper way to deal with the violent behavior.
I think this led Mark Kleiman to believe that Jacob could be talked into some decidedly non-libertarian views in [3], which Sullum, of course, refused to swallow.
Kleiman shows true colors (not that we didn’t already know) in [3] with his full support of the idea of prohibition — even alcohol prohibition, in the right circumstances.

Were I asked to legislate for a nation where alcohol was currently banned and where drinking was not currently a well-established practice, I‰d be inclined to leave the law as it was. Why import a drug problem you don‰t already have?

“Why import a drug problem you don’t already have?” What a twisted and authoritarian approach to public policy! No need to justify the efficacy of prohibition or the costs of prohibition or even consider all those whose lives are ruined by prohibition and those who can use alcohol responsibly. Just a blind, meaningless, stupid “Why import a drug problem you don’t already have?”
This is the face of prohibition.
And then he retreats to the usual intellectually dishonest position:

But since neither alcohol prohibition nor cocaine legalization is in the set of potentially politically feasible options, it might be more productive to talk about things we could do to reduce the damage done by alcohol and by cocaine without changing the legal status of either drug.

Nothing to see here folks. Move along. I have declared legalization dead so it is not a topic of conversation. Since nobody is talking seriously about it, nobody should talk seriously about it. That’s how you develop good public policy. By limiting options to the ones that have already been proven not to work.
Jacob responds in [4]:

I notice that both Mark and Jonathan Caulkins want to limit this discussion (and drug policy debate generally?) to reforms they consider politically feasible. I‰m happy to discuss modest changes that can realistically be achieved in the short term, and I welcome the contributions that both Mark and Jonathan have made to reducing the harm caused by the war on drugs. But I reject the idea that more dramatic changes, such as the full-scale decriminalization of marijuana or the wholesale repeal of drug prohibition, should always be off the table because they‰re not going to happen anytime soon. Clearly, such changes do happen: Drugs that once were legal are now prohibited, and vice versa. Talking about big changes in the law is part of the process of making them happen. Those of us who see drug prohibition as a great injustice are in this for the long haul; we realize that it took many years to reverse other egregiously wrong policies that were once considered beyond debate by serious people.

And Jacob fully enters the debate for the first time.
In Mark’s [3] and Jacob’s [4] there is some banter about Mark’s obsession for fixing the world: drinking licenses. He’s been flogging this dead horse for years. Basically it involves requiring everyone to have a special drinking license in order to drink alcohol that can be revoked if you’re convicted of drunk driving or some other offenses.
Jacob sees the horrors there quite well:

In principle, I do not object to the idea of demanding that people convicted of driving while intoxicated stop drinking for a specified period of time as part of their sentence. […]
But if enforcing such restrictions entails issuing everyone a revocable ‹drinker‰s license,Š this narrowly focused solution becomes a broad burden on drinkers generally. It transforms a right into a privilege, inviting activists, public health officials, judges, and legislators to invent new reasons for telling people they may no longer drink. […]
Instead of requiring all drinkers to obtain, maintain, and present licenses that allow them to consume alcoholic beverages, why not require people convicted of drunken driving to demonstrate their sobriety through ignition interlocks and/or random, unannounced testing?

And then Mark in [5] goes off the deep end with his straw man complaint that reformers aren’t willing to discuss options (this is from the guy who won’t consider legalization.)

I can think of no more powerful argument for maintaining the existing drug prohibitions than the almost universal opposition on the part of people who call themselves ‹drug policy reformersŠ to any effective action to control the damage done by the currently licit drugs.

That’s just absurd, wrong, and… tantrum-like on so many levels.
Jacob responds in [7]

If Mark ‹can think of no more powerful argument for maintaining the existing drug prohibitions than the almost universal opposition on the part of people who call themselves ëdrug policy reformers‰ to any effective action to control the damage done by the currently licit drugs,Š it sounds like he‰s ready to support legalization. My impression, based on two decades of contact with drug policy reformers, is that the vast majority of them do favor what they consider to be effective action aimed at reducing the harm caused by currently licit drugs, although they may disagree about the details.

Finally, Jonathan Caulkins jumps back in at [8] with an entirely incoherent attempt to backpedal on his view that legalization is not worth discussing:

Second, I‰ll agree with Jacob that it can be useful to discuss changes that are not politically plausible at present, but I‰d at least suggest discussants being clear whether they are trying to make practical suggestions for short- to medium-term changes vs. when they are discussing something more as a hypothetical. In that vein, I‰d suggest not lumping together decriminalization of marijuana and across the board legalization of all drugs. Those two proposals have entirely different prospects.

So, yes, it’s OK to realistically discuss things that are not politically plausible at present, so long as they are politically plausible at present. (Has Jonathan read any of this, including his own pieces? Because there really isn’t a college-level intellect showing up at this debate with his name.)
As a side discussion, the Erowids re-appeared in [6], quite distraught with the direction the entire debate has gone

It is surprising and unfortunate that Jonathan Caulkins chose to read our essay as an argument for ‹legalization,Š as it neither included any calls for major changes in current drug control policies nor did it lay out an idealized drug policy for the future. The suggestion we are making, instead, is for providing accurate, pragmatic information to the public about psychoactives (regardless of their legal status) in order to help everyone make decisions about these substances as responsibly as possible.
The three respondents to our article declined to address its central theses, preferring to spin off onto arguing the ‹by-now dull legalization debate.Š Perhaps we should have subtitled our article ‹Not An Argument For Legalization.Š

They’ve got a point, and certainly a clear-headed discussion of their recommendations would be refreshing, positive, and healthful.
Unfortunately, I’ve got to agree with Jacob tho, in [9]

I agree with pretty much everything the Erowids say regarding the importance of accurate information, but I think they underplay the ways in which drug control policies foster misinformation and impede honest discussion of the risks and benefits of drug use. […]
And because the government is committed to defending the lines it currently draws between licit and illicit, it is driven to disseminate propaganda that grossly exaggerates the dangers of illegal intoxicants. The climate of opinion fostered by this propaganda is hardly conducive to a candid discussion about psychoactive substances. […]
So while drug policy does not affect the wisdom of the Erowids‰ clear-eyed, scientifically informed approach to psychoactive substances, it does affect the likelihood that their recommendations will be carried out. By the same token, however, encouraging people to follow this approach could lay the ground for drug policy reform (even if that is not the Erowids‰ intention).

I don’t know if there will be more in the Cato Unbound discussion. If there is, I may have more to share on it. I’ve certainly been enjoying the stimulation of it, even though it has been frustrating.

One more note: I’ve got to give Jacob some props for this rant in [7]:

‹Every year,Š Mark writes, ‹more than 20,000 Americans die as the result of other people‰s drinking, and yet Jacob is against even modest taxes on alcohol.Š He could, with equal logic, have said, ‹Every year, 37,000 Americans die as a result of driving, and yet Jacob is against even modest taxes on cars.Š Or, ‹Every year, 30,000 Americans die as a result of gunshot wounds, and yet Jacob is against even modest taxes on firearms.Š Or even, ‹Every year, 15,000 Americans die as a result of AIDS, and yet Jacob is against even modest taxes on sexual intercourse.Š In each case, the principle is the same: Only a minority of the people subject to the tax are actually contributing to the death toll, and it is unfair to treat all of them as if they were equally irresponsible or anti-social.