Posts Tagged ‘drugs’


May 25, 2012 3 comments
“If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it’s free.” – P.J. O’Rourke

The current debate in the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of Obamacare is, like most political discourse, distracting. Does it matter anymore if something is constitutional? Is indefinite detention without trial constitutional? The real question is, do we need a top-down health care system at all?

Are we as healthy as we could be? Do we have the best health care system in the world? What would the best health care system look like? Would it look anything like the current system? This post will consider the dangers of subjecting health care to law and regulation, why we are still sick, and health freedom. This post will also outline some of the problems inherent in government, as explained with reference to government health care.

Canadians and Europeans love their health care system. It’s so great. You get decent care at a low price. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Let’s first consider the fact that, in almost every case (certainly every one I can think of) where free markets are adopted, they successfully lower prices and increase quality of services. Surely, food is more important than health care. And yet no one is starving in the streets of the developed world, even despite the higher prices caused by subsidy of large farms. The argument that something needs to be done, therefore it needs to be done by government, does not follow. Government does everything less efficiently than business because its agents are relieved of responsibility. It subjects everything to politics, meaning the amount of resources allocated to it will depend on the strength of the groups pushing hardest to control those resources. A complex top-down system is a door wide open to abuse. An anarchist’s argument is that if something needs to be done, the people will make it happen; let the people find a non-coercive way to do it themselves.

The optimal systems, from an economy to the body of an organism, are those built from the bottom up, through trial and error. They are the sum of millions of incremental steps undertaken by millions of decentralised actors. Complex systems are strong systems when they evolve through the actions of everyone that makes them up. Trial and error enables people to fail and accept responsibility, but also to reap the rewards of success. Voluntary systems are thus healthy, robust and produce the best outcomes.

The governments that give their subjects “free” health care are drowning in debt, and health care is a major liability. Yet, it is a sacred cow of statists. We have all heard the arguments: We should take care of each other; socialised medicine is the only way to ensure equality of treatment; without universal health care, who will take care of the poor? People talk about it as if the costs were irrelevant. They are always relevant. Every dollar spent on health care (and bureaucratic “administration”) is a dollar not spent on something else. Given what we know about government inefficiency, how much of that money is getting wasted?

Waste and inefficiency need to be considered, because they mean we are losing our money for no good reason. But we knew about government inefficiency already. What is less well known is that the government promotes unhealthy eating. The US government subsidises animal-fed crops, which means it is subsidising meat. Meat is not healthy, especially factory-farmed meat. (That does not stop the government from feeding it to children) We should be eating more fruit and vegetables. But meat is cheaper, thanks to the taxpayers, so people will overconsume it. Obesity and disease rates will rise. The meat producers will lobby for greater subsidies and greater legal protection of their industry, and force out competitors as best they can. (They use the state to shut down small farmers all the time.)

Health care is getting more expensive because of several factors, including ageing populations; rising costs of technology for the best care available, which everybody wants; an enormous number of laws and regulations controlling what we purchase and ingest; and the fact that whenever the government subsidises something, it rises in price. With something as important as our health, can we really risk letting the government meddle with it?

They say fearfully, “Look at the US. It’s a free market and not everyone has health care.” Sorry, did you say it’s a free market? In the US? Where the government spends trillions of dollars every year on Medicare and Medicaid? Where the American Medical Association uses the law to limit the supply of doctors, allowing them to charge more for doctor care? Where the state decides how much doctors can charge? Where doctors have a monopoly on dispensing medicine? Where the FDA allows and disallows foods and drugs based on political concerns? Where strong intellectual property rights make it impossible for cheaper, generic drugs to make it to the market? Where government regulations enable these things called health maintenance organisations to control who gets care and how much it will cost? This is your idea of a free market? (If so, please read about what a free market is here.)

And if government health care is so good, why do we have multimillion-dollar cancer societies that are actually doing something when government claims to need trillions of dollars to take care of all our ills? Organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are at the forefront of medical breakthroughs and governments are there taking credit for the people’s health, as if thousands of pages of regulations have ever cured anything. The US spends more than any OECD country on healthcare. How much money, how many bureaucrats and how many laws does the government need before it starts solving problems?

It is also ominously pointed out that if we didn’t have health care for literally everyone, people who couldn’t afford it would be dying in the street. Canada, the US and Europe are very prosperous societies. This supposition implies a few things for our discussion of a free market in health care. First, since health care would probably consist of various businesses competing with one another, it is likely that some or most private health care providers or insurers would compete for the business of people on the bottom of society. They would want the business of as many customers as possible. The success of the “bottom of the pyramid” model can be found all over the world, and it works in medical services and insurance. Of course, it is also possible that doctors could live in communities and focus on treating the people of their communities, start clinics that are based on paying whatever you can pay, depending who you are, something like that. Or perhaps businesses that are large enough could have hospitals and clinics just for their employees (and admit others in desperate need). Anything is possible when there is no coercion.

The second reason people probably would not be dying in the street is the Hippocratic oath. Doctors have to give care to people who are in immediate need of it if there is no one around who is more qualified. Maybe they would be working and not in the street where someone is dying, so maybe you could take people to the hospital to see the doctor, which brings us to the third reason people would not die in the street: human sympathy.

The whole reason people believe in health care for everyone is that they believe people are valuable in and of themselves. (Well, that may be due to a sense that our compatriots should have health care; there are few proposals in Europe for paying for the health care needs of the poor in Kolkata.) People could start charities for poor people who cannot afford health insurance. We would presumably have more money to do that if we were not subsidising literally everybody, rich or poor, for their doctor’s visits. Of course, those charities already exist. There is no reason to believe that if we had more money their funding would dry up.

A system that takes care of everyone indiscriminately has lead to self-righteous discrimination. Reasonable people do not resent paying for victims of circumstance, like cancer patients who have never smoked in their lives, but question the compulsion to pay for pack-a-day people with the same ailment. As such, they tell others not to smoke, drink, eat trans fats and sit for more than a few hours. Because many statists believe in a legal approach to changing others, they have erected a nanny state that forces us to conform to the norms of what we are allowed to eat, prohibitions on driving without seatbelts, wear helmets while cycling, and so on. If healthy people were not forced to pay for the healthcare of the health-unconscious, they would have nothing to complain about. This self-righteous indignation relates to every free-rider problem. If no one were forced to pay, the free riders, from special-interest rich to state-dependent poor, would lose out. Those who produce would keep the value of what they produce and give away what they want to whom they want.

A system that treats everyone equally demands conformity. Conformity takes away individual choice and replaces it with collective choice. Like democratic elections, I am not allowed to do what I think is right, only what we think is right. I cannot opt out if a candidate I do not like was chosen; I have wasted my vote. I cannot opt out if I do not want to take other people’s money; that’s the way the system works. We are even faulted with greed or selfishness if we do not go along with the collective. Thus, we are all individual hostages to the collective will, which endorses democracy and thus legitimises everything the government does because it is in the name of “the people”, “the public” or “the greater good”. Instead, we should treat people as individuals, letting them pay their own way if they are able, and helping them out when they need a hand up.

As it stands, in Canada, Europe and the US, a patient’s health care costs are mostly borne by a third party. Rather than covering accidents, injuries that were not the fault of the patient or major operations, so-called health insurance covers everything the patient sees the doctor for. Do we not see the potential for abuse of a doctor’s time under this system? Indeed, it is abused, as patients tend to visit far more frequently than necessary, just like they eat more meat when it is subsidised.

Waiting lists in Canada and Britain are growing. Thousands are in need of various types of surgery. But why should they? Is it for lack of money? No. How would giving the same doctors more money change the fact that there are not enough of them? But wait. There are plenty of doctors in the country. Unfortunately, many of them are driving taxis (at least, so they say), and there are plenty more willing to come. Patients are not permitted to pay more for more prompt treatment, because waiting lists are based on other considerations. Physicians have no right to charge patients based on the market costs of their services and must bill the government for patient visits based on fixed-fee schedules with little regard for the depth of service provided. And since they are restricted in what they charge, they are likely to try to make money in other ways. Because they are limited in what they are offered, it is not surprising that Canadians often go to the US to escape the long waiting times. A free market would provide most or all of what people want without the government failure that characterises the current models.

If universal health care is good, why does no one talk about the Soviet model? In 1918, the Soviet Union was the first country to offer cradle-to-grave medical care for all citizens.  (Read all about it here.) Or is that ridiculous? Most people believe “we” (rather, the state) should make sure no one who cannot afford medical care should nonetheless get it. Then, they say that the only way to make that happen is by force. The conversation goes something like this (courtesy of Stefan Molyneux):

A: Medical care must be entirely privatized.

B: But it’s more expensive when the state does not run it. Look at America!

A: I don’t believe so, but what if it is? Can I tell you how much you should spend on health care? Perhaps, in a free society, people would choose to spend half their income on health care. Would you tell them they cannot?

B: But in the US, 30 million people don’t have health insurance.

A: That is the result of terrible government laws which drive the cost of insurance up, and the benefits down – but let’s say that it is purely voluntary, that many people don’t want health insurance. So what? Would you force them to take health insurance?

B: But people should have health insurance!

A: Why? What if it costs half their income, and they’re eighteen, and very healthy, and take the bus, and don’t skydive, and always cross at the light, and so on? For that person, health insurance would probably make no sense. They would be far better off getting themselves educated, or saving their money, or just taking the risk of getting sick. Health insurance is a very personal decision. I would never feel comfortable making that choice for someone else.

B: But if that eighteen year old gets sick, they have to go to a public hospital, and so they incur a social cost.

A: Yes, at present that is true, but it won’t be the case if health care is privatized.

B: So they’ll just die in the streets?

A: Would that bother you? Watching poor people die in the streets for lack of health care?

B: Of course!

A: So you would help them, right?

B: Yes, I would, but…

A: And so would just about everyone else. Everyone cares about such things. The very presence and acceptance of state-funded health care proves that people care about sick people who can’t take care of themselves. So that won’t be a problem. But even if it is – let’s say that not one person in society cares about sick poor people, and they do die in the streets. If that is so, then giving the government more power would not help them, because such apathetic citizens would never vote for politicians who would care about the poor – and the politicians themselves would not care about the poor, since no one does. So – either people care about the sick and poor, and will help them without the government, or they don’t, in which case the government won’t help them either. The entire point of privatization is that we cannot force our own preferences on other people. If you prefer for everyone to have health insurance, I think that is wonderful! You should start up an insurance company and figure out how to provide it. Or support someone else who does. Or give to charity. Or become a doctor and work two days a week for free. Or pay extra for your own insurance so that others can pay reduced rates. There are thousands of ways to help. But the government cannot morally force people to give money to the poor, or provide them with free health care, because if it’s moral to force charity, then anyone can do it. We must then grant poor people the moral right to grab guns and rob doctors and hospitals for themselves.

This conversation could replace health care with education, police, roads and so on and it would look similar.

Why would a free market for health care be worse? What are we so afraid of? A free market usually provides public goods for everyone, as services of varying price and quality are offered to different income groups, and at far lower costs than the government pays. It is possible, of course, that the quality of care the poor receive would decline, but for the considerations above. Surely, people willing to pay more money for more health care should be allowed. Well, they are not. As Pierre Lemieux puts it, “Opponents of private health care…morally oppose the idea that some individuals may use money to purchase better health care. They prefer that everybody has less, provided it is equal.” Let us look more closely at the statist system.

What are the politics of the vaunted Barack health-care bill? The bill’s history is suspicious, riddled with backroom deals with large insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and the possibility that no one who voted on it actually read it. How could they? It is 906 pages long. Instead of the efficiency that would benefit taxpayers and users, we get complexity. Though praising Barack’s attempt to give everyone health insurance, the Economist then said this.

Every hour spent treating a patient in America creates at least 30 minutes of paperwork, and often a whole hour. Next year the number of federally mandated categories of illness and injury for which hospitals may claim reimbursement will rise from 18,000 to 140,000. There are nine codes relating to injuries caused by parrots, and three relating to burns from flaming water-skis. … The government’s drive to micromanage so many activities creates a huge incentive for interest groups to push for special favours. When a bill is hundreds of pages long, it is not hard for congressmen to slip in clauses that benefit their chums and campaign donors. The health-care bill included tons of favours for the pushy.

The illusion is that somehow government could work without dispensing any favours to the powerful. But how? It is beholden to special interests. Everything it bestows on the powerful makes those people more powerful, making it harder for meaningful legislation to get passed. Now, nearly all Americans will have health insurance, but at what cost?

To say that no money is too much to give everyone something is reckless. Money can always be better spent on something more efficient. Efficiency, one hallmark of a free market, is much misunderstood and maligned. Efficiency saves money that could be spent on important things. For every thousand dollars in value wasted, we take away a thousand dollars of treatment to another person. It is the same reason we should be skeptical of spending trillions of dollars to fight climate change when there are cheaper ways to tackle the problems it is likely to engender.

We simply do not know what freeing the market for health would do. Under the state system, there is no free price system. A price system gives feedback as to market prices because the people are free to choose which prices are right for which services they want, and choose another provider if they like. That is why prices tend to come down when a market is freed: competing suppliers enter the market and people have cheaper options. In a statist system, however, it is common that the law is used to create monopolies and oligopolies. Health care in the US is one example. It is a tragic waste that makes a few well-connected people richer and impoverishes everyone else.

Another reason inefficiency and waste are so prevalent in government is to benefit the state. It is erroneous to believe that the state would like to save money on its programmes. In fact, the more money the state spends, the greater number of or greater the extent people depend on the state. That is why all the wonderful proposals for how to streamline or eliminate a government department fall on deaf ears. Here is one such proposal. To cut healthcare costs, suggest the authors, “Congress and the Supreme Court would be well advised to take additional action to reform healthcare by limiting the patentability of medical processes and diagnostic methods.” But what incentive do lawmakers have to limit the patentability of something that makes a few people rich? Patent laws are strong because the elite want them to remain strong. Politicians are not interested in saving other people’s money but spending as much of it as they can to please everyone they need to to achieve their goals. Of course the Barack health plan could be cheaper than it is; but then how would he dole out billions of other people’s money to corporate lobbies?

It is often said that health care is a right. The same people might say that education, a job, a house and a cushy retirement are all rights as well. While those things may be rights of a sort, an anarchist would say that it is wrong to force everyone else to pay for and provide those things, and can point to the disastrous effects this “give it to me or I won’t vote for you” entitlement mentality have had. If you have the right to free health care, is it my obligation to pay for it? The “right” to education has led to a steady devaluing of it and a massive debt bubble; the right to a house turned into the mortgage meltdown; and the right to a pension underlies the largest and most intractable long-term government liabilities all over the rich world. I have a right to good health in the same way I have a right to walk around shouting racial slurs; either way, I should pay the price myself. Senator Bernie Sanders once said that getting the best possible health care the system can provide is a right for all Americans. I wonder how many millions of dollars per person that would cost, and how much the price of health care would rise if it were not seriously deregulated first, but I do not suggest attempting it. But Bernie derives his popularity from the entitlement mentality.

Politicians are always happy to feed the people’s illusion that it can provide them with everything they want by telling them they deserve it. So politicians come up with “ideas”, usually in the form of laws and spending increases and never dare to suggest people should take responsibility for themselves.

One idea that keeps raising its head is to increase the amount of money for Medicare and Medicaid. But Medicare and Medicaid are government-run programs. Do we really trust the government to do what’s best with our money for our health? Why do we not just let the people who get sick pay for themselves? Stop taxing people half their earnings and they might have enough to cover a lifetime of illness. The government does not exactly create economies of scale. It spends more than $100m of that money on drugs people do not need. But instead, we prefer to shovel money into bottomless pits.

Medicare and other state health care funds are going bankrupt, like all Ponzi schemes do eventually. The estimated size of unfunded liabilities in the US ranges from $50 trillion to over $100 trillion. The money is simply not there, and unless we catch a leprechaun, it is not about to appear. Problems regarding unfunded liabilities of popular programmes never get touched until it is far too late, because politicians have their own agendas and taking the initiative to solve a political problem is rarely on them. If such a problem can be put off until after the next election, it is; and when the inevitable collapse comes, it will be someone else’s fault.

You know herbs, those plants that you can take to heal yourself? Health Canada has criminalised them. (I wonder if a certain pharmaceutical lobby influenced their decision.) Dr Gabor Mate knows of a treatment for drug addiction: a traditional Amazonian tea called ayahuasca. However, because the plant is officially a “drug”, Health Canada has ordered him to stop using it. Of course, it may, in fact, be quackery; but it does not follow that we should use violence to stop it. The same may go for iboga and even LSD.

Man is a natural scientist. That is how we got all these delicious fruits and vegetables we have today. From the beginning of agriculture, farmers selected the best vegetation and bred them. Through trial and error, the testing phase of the scientific method, we ended up with foods that are tastier than those growing wild. The same is true for why we have different breeds of horses and dogs. It is called artificial selection. People have been growing plants for medicine for a long time, too. Perhaps if they had had more money and the freedom to grow whatever they wanted, we would have better medicines today. As it stands, we are prohibited from growing all kinds of things—hemp, the wonder plant with a thousand uses, leaps to mind.

If we are free to try things, we might find a cure for our problems. No freedom means no cure, or an unnecessarily expensive cure. We thus see the danger of letting any government office “regulate”, which just means using violence to prevent people from deciding on their own, any substance at all. They tell the people what they can and cannot put in their bodies, which means they own and control our bodies, which means we could not possibly consider ourselves free. And the idea that government needs that power because it knows or should decide what is right for peaceful, sentient beings is ridiculous.

The FDA, or any regulatory body, as a government agency, is beholden to the whims of politicians. If politicians say, for instance, that marijuana must remain illegal, the FDA will kowtow. It has released all manner of dangerous pharmaceuticals on to the market, while continuing to lie that marijuana has no medicinal properties. It has broad scope to stop whatever it defines as a “drug”. (That said, a different law prohibits the FDA from saying anything about “dietary supplements”, also broadly defined. More laws do not make more sense.) It should thus not be surprising to anyone that the main food safety guy at the FDA, Michael Taylor, was formerly an executive of Monsanto. Clarence Thomas was an attorney for Monsanto and now is an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Linda Fisher worked for 10 years in the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, next headed Monsanto’s Washington lobbying efforts, then went back to the EPA. They are not the only ones taking advantage of the revolving door. (More on the FDA here.)

The FDA does not protect anyone’s health. The idea that a government is a good judge of what is right to put in your body is a joke. In spite of all its well-documented benefits, the Supreme Court has said that the US government can prosecute people who smoke marijuana, whether for medicinal purposes, whether given them by a doctor, whether the state has decriminalised the drug, or not. The FDA kept silent on arsenic fed to chickens and consumed by Americans for some time, while sending US marshalls to raid a distributor of elderberry juice because it was an “unapproved drug”. Another feature of all bureaucracies is their unceasing need to justify their existence by issuing directives that are supposed to be good for the public. If you are still not convinced, I suggest watching The World According to Monsanto to see the symbiotic relationship between the FDA and a corporation that would be considered criminal in a healthy society. The FDA is not good for the public. If it opened up food and drug certification to competition, the FDA would be irrelevant.

What else must we do and not do? Armed troops in helmets with guns drawn recently took down Rawesome, a raw food store in California, and seized the unpasteurised milk and organic coconuts they were selling. The government of California, deeply in debt, spent taxpayer dollars protecting big agribusiness by destroying its small competitors. Plenty more have been raided since Rawesome. The government has moved beyond the business of suggesting what we should eat (with its special-interest-inspired food pyramids and its classifying of pizza as a vegetable) to forcing us to shop for food where its campaign contributors demand. The businesses we must shop from pump their food full of antibiotics in factory farms.  If the government was concerned about our safety, it would shut down those farms (or at least warn the public about the dangers). Instead, it takes away your freedom and health because it is controlled by someone who cares about your money, not your health.

Do we need to tax 100% of the people to take care of the 5 or 10% who have no one to take care of them and who cannot take care of themselves? I have friends who make $40,000 a year who say that they need socialised medicine or else how could they afford it if something went wrong. Why don’t they save up money to take care of themselves or buy insurance? You would save up and buy insurance to take care of your car. And what is the role of private charity? We humans have shown we can take care of each other—even people we will never meet—by giving or volunteering to help the less fortunate. Government  not only does not solve social problems, it tends to prolong them. Let us see how the free market would handle and handles health.

Free-market health care

It is appropriate to consider not only what is wrong with the present system, but how we could be healthier in a stateless society. I have been asked “so how would you organise health care?” The first answer that leaps to mind is that, I would not. For the same reason top-down, hierarchically-imposed solutions tend to work very poorly, it does not matter how good my own ideas are; the people can decide these things for themselves. Free markets and free people have a way of sorting things out that makes sense, which is why we do not have triangular ATM cards and DVDs, even though the government did not tell us what shape to make them. Second, if people think health care is a good idea, they will find a way to make it happen. Take away the force, give people their freedom and see what happens.

The answer is not so much a system of health care as empowering people to make their own health decisions. It is likely that, as in all relatively free markets, the market for health would develop tiers of care. The lowest tier would be for common illnesses. How will the poor get healthy? You mean aside from diet and exercise, right? Perhaps they could pay for insurance. Or is that unreasonable? Insurance is only for the rich? Perhaps low-cost healthcare will arise. Wait. It already has.

Walmart offers walk in health services by leasing store space to private clinics. It costs a flat $45 per visit, meaning there is price transparency. This competition ends the monopoly doctors once had, and they will need to lower their prices.

The (relatively) free market is helping improve our health every day. Look at what intrepid entrepreneurs are doing. They provide venture capital for healthcare startups; help people save money on doctors and dentists; provide online platforms for doctors to communicate and for people to fundraise for individual patients who need it.

A stateless society might still want something that protects the people from bad drugs and food. We should not trust a government monopoly that banks low-cost drugs and foods just because they compete with powerful corporations. We already have other people testing these things—let them publish reliable findings or damage their reputations as scientists.

It is quite possible they will want to continue to subsidise each other (after all, such health care systems are popular), though why they might choose to do it on a national level is beyond me. I would never say we have to become atoms, or isolated communities. I see little benefit in such a scheme. If you do not like business, fine. The free market is not about business but free people’s solutions. We could arrange mutual aid through health cooperatives.

Forcing others to pay for something you believe in, whether you call something a right or not, is not virtuous. Compassion is virtuous and better for your health than pills. All I think is that we should have the choice.

Memes that miss the root

May 21, 2012 Leave a comment

When one takes action to solve a problem, it is important that one strikes the root of the problem. One sees nowadays a proliferation of JPEG memes on the internet that show that people posting them want change, but they do not know where the root of the problem is. This post looks at some of those memes in order to reveal the root.

If they want to leave me alone, why do they need the government? Aren’t they leaving me alone right now? Power corrupts, not just left- and right-wing politicians but everyone. How about no one gets to take over the government? (See more on power here.)

I think this one is supposed to be anti-libertarian but I am sure many libertarians agree with it. Again, the goal is to reduce or constrain government, usually with a constitution. But if it is about freedom, why do people need to be governed? Why not let them decide, with their communities and other associations, what are the right rules, forms of currency and means of security? Why would any of those things needs to be centralised and monopolised?

The small government envisioned by the Founding Fathers has grown into the largest statist monstrosity the world has ever seen. The constitution has, in the end, done little to stop it.

Why love either? Nationalism and statism feed off each other. If you and your millions of compatriots are truly a nation, you need representatives; hence the government. If you have a government, it will foster a sense of nationalism in order to make you believe you need national institutions and national defense and so on to create loyalty to the state preserving them.

If the state did not cover more than a city or a community, it would have far fewer resources than it has today. Do you think a municipal state would try to track you with spy drones or cause trillion-dollar financial crashes? But nationalism magnifies the power of the state many times, because nationalism legitimises a national state with far greater resources. (See more on nationalism here.)

Just what the world needs—another nation state. It is understandable to want statehood in the present world, as nation states supposedly prevent the rapacious foreigner from invading. (Well, if they are strong enough; and no state anywhere near Israel is.) But they do not prevent the rapacious local from stealing anything; in fact, they institutionalise local corruption.

Palestinian people, if you want a state, consider what life has been like under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Surely, what you really want is freedom and justice and peace. Those things are not handed to you when you get a state. They are won when the people overcome the state.

There is no such thing as “majority rule”. Democracy, in its modern form, necessitates a government, and a government is a small clique of rulers. Voting every few years and hoping one’s vote has an effect does not mean one is in charge. All government is minority rule. As Will Durant said, “the political machine triumphs because it is a united minority acting against a divided majority.” Oligarchy is the norm. (More on democracy here.)

SOPA is a great example of how a specific bill can face a wave of opposition, die, then get resurrected sneakily as something even more sinister (CISPA). The problem is not one or more laws, but the fact that a small group has a monopoly on making rules and enforcing them at gunpoint. (Find my assessment of the problem of law here.)

Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that legalising all drugs would bring in some $40b in tax revenues at all levels if the drugs were taxed at rates similar to alcohol, and we would save another $40b in incarceration and court costs. But as he points out, this might not make much of a dent in the colossal US government budget deficits; and one reason to legalise all drugs is that “all the people who want to use drugs are being somewhere between mildly inconvenienced and grossly harmed by the policy of prohibition. We are not helping drug users in any way, shape or form.”

Moreover, as economist Walter Block points out, giving more money to the government would not be a good thing. “It is sometimes argued that one of the benefits of legalising addictive drugs is that they could be taxed, and the government revenues enhanced,” he says. “From this perspective, this would be the only valid case against legalisation.” How about we legalise drugs and do not tax them?

Likewise, those who say they need to be regulated do not know what government regulations are. Regulations are not there to help all people but special interests. They mostly work to create oligopolies, like we see in cigarette, alcohol and pharmaceutical markets.

But all this talk about marijuana misses the bigger picture. The real reason to end all regulation and taxation of drugs is that no one has the right to tell you what you can and cannot put in your body when the consumption of that substance does not affect anyone else. Our bodies are our property, and no one can take away a free man’s property. Unless we are irresponsible children with no judgment, drug markets should be freed. (My indictment of the War on Drugs is here.)

By now, you may be able to guess my attitude toward the gay marriage thing. I do not care who gets together, as long as it is between consenting adults—it is none of my business—but why does marriage involve the law at all? Why would the state give extra benefits to people because they are married, or deny them anything because they are not. Time to get marriage out of the hands of the state altogether. (Here is David McElroy on the subject.)

Syria’s government fears its people. Need I say more?

Find lots more memes—ones that I agree with—at the Rule of Freedom Facebook page.

Canada follows the US toward the police state

March 22, 2012 Leave a comment

One interesting feature of Canadian culture is its love-hate relationship with the US. Much of what Canadians do is a reaction to what they see in the US as distasteful. They prefer a foreign policy based on peace, for example. They stayed aloof from Operation Iraqi Freedom because like the rest of the world, Canadians knew it was bogus. They are still persuaded to go to war, but only if they can be persuaded the war is about helping people, such as in Afghanistan and Libya. But something is changing. Society is going one way and the state is going the other. The country in which I lived most of my life is following the US trend downward into dictatorship.

First, consider that Canada is experiencing its lowest crime rate since 1973. Crimes that are down include homicide, attempted murder, assault, break-ins, auto theft and drunk driving. Crimes whose numbers are up include drug and firearm offences, which in themselves are victimless. The ruling Conservative Party, which, because it has a majority government, can do anything it wants, has passed a tough-on-crime bill (Bill C-10) that mandates more jail time to potgrowers than to people who sexually assault children. In fact, it includes mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, meaning the judge is no longer a judge but merely a sentencer, and the courts are a waystation on the road to prison. It means more of the War on Drugs, with its concomitant rise in organised crime and violence. The “justice” system will uphold these laws, of course, because it is not about justice but the law. The bill to incarcerate harmless criminals will cost $19b.

The Canadian government is cracking down harder on internet freedom. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews warned Canadians to support a new law to enable the government to spy on its citizens online with the Bushesque “either stand with us or with the child pornographers.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Terry Milewski explains, “his bill would, in fact, dramatically change the law to allow the government much, much more access to our online lives and identities.” All Canadians’ basic information can be handed over to the government if it so demands, without a warrant, and thus without suspicion. Bill C-30 allows government “inspectors” to look at any private information on the internet now. Why do they want this information? What are they going to do with it?

Third, in this time of financial belt tightening, the police are getting raises. They already make far more than the average Canadian, but then they are a section of the bureaucracy. But most Canadian bureaucrats are not getting raises. Why do the cops need more money? Is evicting protesters getting more perilous? But perhaps they need it. The inevitable rise in violent crime due to the increased suppression of the drug trade will indeed make their jobs harder. But is it all necessary? Is there nothing better we can spend that money on?

When I say “we”, of course, I only mean we would have decided on that money if it had not been stolen from us in the first place. We have no recourse, because when the government makes up its mind, we can do little. We could protest, but we would need hundreds of thousands of people at least in the streets to repeal any one of these laws; and in true government fashion, similar laws would be sneaked by us later anyway. Moreover, if we protested and the police hit back as hard as they did at the last G-8 summit in Toronto when some 1000 protesters were arrested for disagreeing with the elites, we would simply feed the prison system. The government could use it as evidence that we need more prisons and more repressive laws to make things safer.

Canada will not become safer, only more repressive. Most Canadians will not benefit from these laws. Canada’s government is dancing on the fine line between democracy and dictatorship, and like all those who desire power, it favours an expansion of the power of the state toward the latter. Canadians should not remain complacent.

War, part 5: Afghanistan

September 11, 2011 2 comments

The trend in warfare for the past hundred years or more has been to involve civilians gradually more in every conflict. Many of today’s wars, such as those in Iraq, Turkey, the Palestinian territories, Sri Lanka and Chechnya, pit a government against one or more terrorist organisations who consider their territory occupied by the government. The government, usually a democracy, is attempting to project its power over a wider territory than the people of that territory consider legitimate, with the added bonus of providing the government’s constituents with an enemy around which they can rally, distracting them from the government’s other crimes. They spend millions of dollars buying PR in order to paint themselves as the moral side in the conflict. (Indeed, the Israeli government and its supporters never tire of repeating that it has “the most moral army in the world”, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.) The enemy kills babies. We build homes. Because the organisations resisting occupation are non governmental, they are not militaries and are usually called “terrorists” (or more recently “insurgents”). Particularly since 9/11, soldiers have been the good guys who fight terrorists, and terrorists have been, in George W.’s mindless phrasing, “the evildoers”. Terrorists, insurgents and so on mix with the people, their base of support, which means that when militaries go after them, civilian casualties result. The occupying troops want to convince the locals that they are there to help, and the locals do not really buy it. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan epitomises this trend.

It seems that the ideal outcome of the mission in Afghanistan is the following. First, decimate the Taliban and al Qaeda, and the other insurgent groups, or at least lop their heads off. That should lead to the outcome of ending tyranny in Afghanistan once and for all. (Officially, as of March 2009, the ISAF is there “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” Voters like that mission: the bad guys are mean, sexist, Islamist dictators; and even though we messed up Iraq, maybe we have learned something from it?) Second, help the local population build up infrastructure, improve their health and education, etc., both to win hearts and minds and for the good it would do them. Third, reduce terrorist attacks on Western and other targets. Sorry if this looks like a straw man. I am under the impression it is the vision of ISAF commanders and the public.

The first point regards the difficulty the foreign militaries face in fighting their chosen enemies. First, there is al Qaeda, which is highly resistant to decapitation because it does not really have a leader or a centre. (I suggest not buying into the Zawahiri or Awlaki hype. They are not terrorist masterminds. Let them actually succeed  again before we start fearing them.) I do not know if it is possible to drop a bomb that would kill more than five of them. More centralised groups like Hamas and the PKK have survived the loss of leaders, partly because this kind of group is highly adaptive (more so than large, hierarchical militaries). Then there is the indigenous anti-occupation resistance. As far as I know there are three large groups fighting the foreign troop presence (not including a number of Afghanis recruited for government security forces who have turned on the ISAF). The Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani Network and Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin are (I think, though I am by no means an expert on Afghanistan) examples of organisations that it would be very hard to destroy, because they are made up of locals banded together by the cause of ejecting foreigners. They are different from Iraqi resistance organisations, because many of the latter engaged in street warfare, whereas Afghan resistance groups populate the many villages of Afghanistan. In journalist Nir Rosen’s words,

It is impossible to live among the people the way the Americans did during the surge in Iraq, because there is no population concentration, and every home in a village is so far away from another, and there are few roads. You can rumble along a road for a few hours to shake hands and drink tea with some elders only to head back to the base to get a burger and ice cream before the chow hall closes, but the Taliban own the night and can undermine any deal you will make. They are part of the community.

There are some defections from these groups to national troops, but when that happens the defectors are usually enticed by the money. We could probably get most Afghans on our side for, say, $10 trillion over 5 years, but is Afghanistan really worth it? It is even worth the $10m in aid some say is being siphoned out of the country every day (that might be going to anti-ISAF militias)?

(I will not go too far into the regional instability that governments are only exacerbating, but insurgencies in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan give support to the Afghan resistance and render all attempts to “stabilise” Afghanistan impossible. Even the best “regional strategy” imposed from the top is likely to fail.)

No less significantly, according to Gen. Stanley McChrystal (and all other sources), the Taliban get a big part of their funding from the drug trade. Until the main drug consuming countries (mostly the US, but Canada too) legalise drugs and let legal competitors enter the market, the price of drugs will remain high, Afghanistan will continue to provide the vast majority (about 70%) of the world’s heroin and the Taliban will continue to make millions of dollars off it. Many supporters of the push against the Taliban and other bad guys is their claim that the Taliban are bad, therefore we must fight them. But this argument begs the question. What is missing is the major premise: if someone is bad we should fight them. However, that is not the case. Sure, another 20 years of killing and trillions more dollars and maybe the war could be won for the “good guys”. But besides being a waste of money and lives, I seriously doubt the political will exists for it. The fact is, Afghanistan will go to whomever wants it more, and the indigenous resistance have already shown who that is.

Second, helping the locals. Gordon Brown mapped his vision in 2009: “build basic services — clean water, electricity, roads, basic justice, basic health care, and then economic development.” What a warm feeling taxpayers must get from such a selfless and charitable mission. I am sure some local Afghans have benefited from what the ISAF governments have given them. (See some of those things here.) However, photos for Stars and Stripes tend to obscure reality. Journalist William Dalrymple describes the situation on the ground.

[T]here have been few tangible signs of improvement under the western-backed regime. Despite the US pouring approximately $80bn into Afghanistan, the roads in Kabul are still more rutted than those in the smallest provincial towns of Pakistan. There is little health care; for any severe medical condition, patients still have to fly to India. A quarter of all teachers in Afghanistan are themselves illiterate. In many areas, district governance is almost non-existent: half the governors do not have an office, more than half have no electricity, and most receive only $6 a month in expenses. Civil servants lack the most basic education and skills.

This is largely because $76.5bn of the $80bn committed to the country has been spent on military and security, and most of the remaining $3.5bn on international consultants, some of whom are paid in excess of $1,000 a day, according to an Afghan government report. This, in turn, has had other negative effects. As in 1842, the presence of large numbers of well-paid foreign troops has caused the cost of food and provisions to rise, and living standards to fall. The Afghans feel they are getting poorer, not richer.

The locals are not yet on their way to prosperity. In fact, they are suffering. (See Kate Brooks’ photo essay here.) The situation of women is not getting better, either. The cover of Time a year ago portrayed a frightening picture of an Afghan girl whose husband had cut off her nose, saying that this would happen more if “we” left Afghanistan. What it overlooked was that 9 years of occupation had still not ended the abuse of women. Neither the ISAF nor the Karzai government have brought education or rights to women, and they cannot unseat the people who are taking them away, and they have no credible plan to do so. Moreover, there is something larger that NATO is taking away from Afghans.

The very presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan results in civilian deaths, either in the crossfire of firefights, misplaced (or just really big) bombs, drone attacks that have killed a number of civilians that is still unknown, or when foreign troops go on a killing spree. For example, on May 19, 2011, the Taliban killed 35 people working on US-financed road projects which, at least according to journalist Hashim Shukoor, “the insurgents believe threaten their access to refuges in the tribal regions of Pakistan.” They would not have killed these people had the US not been in the picture. Foreign troops attempting to protect civilians from the Taliban tend to increase civilian casualties directly or indirectly. Brutal weapons are systematically destroying innocent people: they are not as discriminating as those who order their use would have us believe. A tribal elder told William Dalrymple, “How many times can they apologise for killing our innocent women and children and expect us to forgive them? They come, they bomb, they kill us and then they say, ‘Oh, sorry, we got the wrong people.’ And they keep doing that.” The recent escalation of the war is presumably why risk to minorities grew more in Afghanistan this year than in any other country (“Civilian deaths have climbed every year for the past five years, totalling nearly 3,000 in 2010 according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.”), and almost certainly why so many Afghans are angry with the foreigners and can’t wait to see the back of them. People tend not to fall for the “throw off your oppressors and we’ll stop bombing you” approach. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to blame the foreigners for their plight, turning to the devil they know to protect them from the one they don’t. As long as the madness of the occupation persists, Afghans will not be turned against the indigenous oppressors in favour of the foreign ones. How many civilians need to die before “the country” is “free”?

The intervening powers might be even less welcome in Pakistan. The ISAF has pushed some of Afghanistan’s problems into Pakistan, and as a result, Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan have become “AfPak”, a stronghold of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Pakistani army has lost many soldiers fighting what many Pakistanis complain (ever more frequently with bombs strapped to their chests) is the US’s war. The US has been using drones, an unmanned airplane controlled from the other side of the world. In doing so, it is able to target suspected militants for assassination while exposing no Americans to danger. The number of drone attacks has increased dramatically under Barack Obama, and drones are killing civilians. How many is uncertain, but the painstaking work of Noor Behram suggests that for every 10 to 15 people killed, one militant goes down. (The Brookings Institute finds roughly the same proportion, though it encourages the strikes as a way to prevent al Qaeda terrorism.) One report identified 168 children killed in drone strikes as of August 2011. The strikes injure countless more and “radicalise” (which I believe means “infuriate to the point of violent retaliation”) the locals. There are also certain legal questions regarding drone attacks that have not been resolved, and unsurprisingly the Barack administration does not seem interested in them. As a result of all this unthinking intervention, Pakistan, a country riddled with Islamic extremism and terrorism, armed with nuclear warheads, is becoming less stable by the day. Anatol Lieven fears not so much the Islamist terrorist threat but that a portion of the Pakistani army will mutiny, and the state of Pakistan will collapse. The US destabilised Cambodia while fighting in Vietnam, and we can only hope the fate of Pakistan is less bad than that of Cambodia.

The other thing the ISAF is inflicting on the locals is the single most corrupt and ineffectual government in the world, the government of Hamid Karzai. I know a Taliban or whoever government would be bad, but I don’t really see what good the present one is doing anyone. Karzai knows his people see him as a foreign puppet, and has attempted to distance himself from his backers. He accused the US, UK and UN of orchestrating an election fraud, called NATO an “army of occupation” and threatened to join the Taliban. Attempts to strengthen the central government will not work, as, according to Professor Paul Staniland, “there is very little evidence that winning hearts and minds through legitimate state-building is a path to victory. Building a strong state is often in direct opposition to the will of the population (or at least a significant part of it).” (That should not be surprising to anyone reading this blog. Governments fail to win hearts and minds not because of lack of money or posters but because they are self-interested, violent and irretrievably rapacious.) The Afghan state is not likely to retract its hand from poppy money any time soon, however much control the ISAF governments think they have over it. (Find more on the Afghan drug business and corruption here.) Any government with any hand in Afghanistan is likely to do whatever it can to take the trillion dollars’ worth of minerals reportedly lying under the ground from the locals. Attempts to train locals in being the military or police of a central Afghan state (and the $9b spent on it in 2010) are, needless to say, not going according to plan. More and more “inside attacks” are occurring as Afghans the ISAF trusted turn on the coalition. If the foreign militaries really want to help the people, my suggestion is to help people defend themselves from oppression on the local level and don’t try to prop up or take down any kind of government.

Regarding terrorism, I do not think foreign occupation will reduce terrorism anywhere in the world. There are a few things to note here. Though terrorism itself has various motivations in various situations, a major cause is perceived foreign occupation. In Dying to Kill and Cutting the Fuse, Robert Pape explains a clear pattern in suicide bombings leading to that conclusion, among others. (I’ll let you read those books—they are excellent.) And on the whole, suicide bombings are deadlier than other forms of terrorism. There were no real terrorist attacks by foreign nationals on Western soil until 9/11. After the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, there were a bunch.

Terrorism is designed to send a message. When the recent invasion of Libya began, my parents said, “good: get the guy who orchestrated the Lockerbie bombing.” I was initially surprised that they did not realise that Lockerbie had been in retaliation for the attempt on Gaddafi’s life that killed his adopted daughter. Apparently the news, which my parents watch every night, does little to explain that terrorism has causes. In 2006, 18 young Muslims were arrested in Toronto for plotting to detonate truck bombs, storm the Canadian parliament and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and behead the PM. According to Mubin Shaikh, one of the two guys who infiltrated the group, the ringleader’s main point of contention was that “troops are in Afghanistan raping Muslim women”. In 2004, bombs went off in Madrid three days before a general election that were obviously a protest of Spain’s involvement in Iraq. With little regard to Spanish politics at the time, some accused the Spanish people of caving in by electing a new government and immediately ending Spain’s commitment to Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, pre-election polls suggested Spanish voters had been at best lukewarm on the war and the government who had led them to war. For two days following the Madrid bombing, the government tried to manipulate information and blame the Basque militant group, ETA; the public’s finding out it was in fact an offshoot of al Qaeda added anger to shock. A few days after the election, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote an article headed “The world must unite against terrorism”, in which he called the removal of Spanish troops from Iraq a victory for the terrorists. Whether or not that is true is irrelevant. A more important question is, was it the right thing to do? He proceeded to conclude that Britain must not follow suit. A year later, Britain suffered its own terrorist bombing, almost definitely in protest of the UK government’s killing and debasement of Muslims in Iraq. There is no reason to believe that foreign interventions will reduce terrorism.  In fact, as Anatol Lieven points out, “U.S. and British soldiers are in effect dying in Afghanistan in order to make the world more dangerous for American and British peoples.” One possible reason for ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on is to increase the foreign terrorist threat that elites can use to take away more of your freedom. It has worked out that way so far.

But there are other, less official but nonetheless very good reasons for being in Afghanistan.

One is that the US military and its political sponsors have come to regard failure as inconceivable, not an option. This is partly due to the fact that a superpower abhors defiance (which was one reason for Operation Iraqi Freedom), and partly because the military-civilian establishment of the US sees military power as a solution to everything from flexing muscles in order to menace rival powers to staying in power by continuing to supply Americans with cheap consumer goods so they do not have to ask them to lower their standards of living and pay off their credit cards.

Remember how Unocal was trying to build a pipeline through Afghanistan in the 90s? Did you know about that? Well anyway, a natural gas pipeline is still being built. It is a long pipeline, about 1700km long, from Turkmenistan south through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. It is not owned by Unocal but is still expected to supply gas to the US and Europe, bypassing Russia and Iran, the traditional routes. The US and its allies have an interest in protecting the pipeline.

Even bigger is Afghanistan’s $1 trillion in mineral deposits: “huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world”. Do you think ordinary Afghans will benefit from this find? Finding billions worth of diamonds in Sierra Leone didn’t help the people. Let’s ask Libyans and Nigerians how much of their countries’ oil revenue they got. I think fighting over these minerals will make things worse for them.

It almost seems futile to protest the war, because every few months politicians promise they are about to end the mission and draw down troops. Every year they say that this will be “the decisive year”. Then things get more violent, as the opponents of the occupation get more desperate and recruit more people, and the politicians say “just a little bit longer”, like children asking their parents’ permission to stay up late. But the parents are unaware how devious their kids are, and what their kids are doing when the parents’ backs are turned. There is no reason to believe the occupiers and their sneaky, underhanded attempts to hide the truth from those funding the war. The ISAF has 700 bases in Afghanistan, with a $100m expansion of Special Operations headquarters approved only last year. Do you think they are about to leave any time soon? The best we can hope for is enough reporters on the scene who exposes the abuses of all sides, as violence by any party in the name of this war is an indictment of it.

Why do you think Afghanistan is the way it is? It is because war has been imposed on it for decades. Desperate people under pressure for so long do not turn out like us rich-world people. The most competent NATO general will never understand what it is like to be an Afghani. What hearts-and-minds strategy could he possibly contrive? Now we have these self-important democracy promoters, who could do a little better than to prop up the least effective government in the world, and who seem to think we just need a little bit more war before Afghanistan will be fine again. Governments of the ISAF have given no vision—that’s something leaders do—for what Afghanistan should look like, and have no plans that have worked so far. And the heads of state shuffle their national security teams and nothing changes. Now, you can say that the troops are in Afghanistan helping people, but they are also killing people. So whom are they really helping? If foreign troops are there and Afghans who do not like them try to kill them—I know, such ingrates, right?—regular people will get caught in the crossfire. That means the presence of those troops is a cause of the violence. It does not matter who pulled that particular trigger. But these people who think democracy is so important it is worth keeping up this kind of war believe that we have to win and impose our values on these ignorant yokels, and that if some die in the meantime, well, that’s the price you pay. Little bit more war, then we’ll defeat the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and any other groups that pop up in the meantime, and Afghanistan will be on the road to democracy! Some roads are so bumpy you are better off not driving on them.

Saigon fell to bad guys and the world did not end. Stop trying to control everything. Stop chasing the illusion of stability through dictatorship or military force. It is having the opposite effect.