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Don’t fear the free market, part 2: Government knowledge is not superior knowledge

August 8, 2011 4 comments

The government has done good things, right? Well, how do we know what would have got done if the people paying for those things had not had all that money? Sure, we wouldn’t have as many space ships or nuclear weapons as we do today, but we might have found cures for various diseases, new technologies that consume less energy, and other things people want. Nearly all discoveries and innovations that have helped ordinary people have come from private individuals, usually working without government subsidy. The computer was developed by the state, but no one would have one today except the government had it not been allowed to trickle down to the private sector. The enormous innovations that have improved every aspect of the computer, including lowering its prices, would not have come about to anything like the same extent without the private sector. Modern science is often cited as an outcome of government funding, but a mere glance at history reveals governments prosecuting scientists like Galileo with controversial views and scientists since the beginning of science working without government support. There seems to be a modern belief that the reason for all progress since the beginning of the state system is the state, and that we could not have evolved the good life without it. But that proposition begs the question, assuming that the progress society has made is the right kind of progress, and relies on the counterfactual that there would have been less “progress”, however defined, without the state. Let us challenge those beliefs in this post.

Some statists seem to expect government to protect them from any and all dangers. Never mind that it cannot; it will not even try. Take the issue of child car seats. As Steven Levitt explains, the facts on child car seats were available, but government did what was popular and would feed a special interest—creating a law forcing children under 2 to use car seats—instead of reading them. How many children died for votes?

Another example of the backfiring of the call for government to save the day (the Nanny State) relates to the law governing the use of cell phones when driving. The law said that cell phones could not be used while driving unless using a hands-free device. But as Chabris and Simons explain in the Invisible Gorilla, the problem is not with our hands. Studies found that people talking on the phone while driving were far more likely to have crashes than those who were not, regardless of where their hands were. The problem is that any talking on a phone (as distinct from talking to someone else in the car) is a major distraction. Now, we have a law that does not protect anyone except the people who make hands-free devices, a new special interest group that will fight like stray dogs to keep the law in place.

And protection of big business is the only reason I can conceive why the US government would outlaw the sale of raw milk. (See some amazing stuff about it here.) Government protects corporations far more than it protects you from them. Democrats who call for legal action against companies like Monsanto do not seem to understand how many laws there are behind Monsanto already. If you want government action to take down big corporations, how about getting rid of the intellectual property laws that create monopolies? Intellectual property enables the owner to mark prices up far beyond what they would be were they subjected to competition. Today, we even have corporations owning strains of rice! How ridiculous. This is a perfect example of the bankruptcy of the argument that corporations are too powerful because the government is too weak. Governments could easily break this monopoly if they wanted to. They have a monopoly on the legal use of force. Patenting rice is impossible without the collusion of government.

How many people will die because a “free trade” agreement between India and the EU hobbles Indian firms developing generic drugs? This law, this distortion of the free market masquerading as free trade, will render almost impossible the buying of cheap drugs for diseases such as HIV for those most vulnerable to them. Kevin Carson explains that drug patents are unnecessary to recoup expenses and developing the most effective drugs.

First of all, there has been a dramatic shift away from fundamentally new kinds of blockbuster drugs, because it’s much more cost-effective to put money into tweaking the formulas of drugs whose patents are about to expire just enough to qualify for repatenting them — so-called ‘me, too drugs.’  Second, a great deal of the basic research on which drug development is based is carried out at government expense in publicly funded universities.  Around half of the overall cost of drug R&D is taxpayer-funded.  And in the United States, under the terms of legislation passed in the 1980s, the patents on drugs developed entirely at taxpayer expense are given away — free of charge — to the drug companies that produce and market them.  Third, most of the actual R&D cost for developing drugs comes, not from testing the version of a drug actually marketed, but from securing patent lockdown on all the other major possible variants.

Generic drugs do not get developed because they are illegal, because they are competition. The poor people who need them most do not get them. Intellectual property, Carson concludes, is murder.

I wonder if politicians ever read the legislation they vote on or the reports written for them by bureaucrats, or if they just consult interest groups they are courting to make laws. How could they read all that, anyway? They would need a hundred hours a day of reading to make informed decisions on everything they vote on. Commenting on the renewal of the appalling USA PATRIOT Act, Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute says, “at most they might get a ten- or fifteen-minute briefing, with no notes and no staff, the idea that they meaningfully understand what is being done much better than the rest of us is actually wishful thinking.”

When the government promises to protect consumers, watch out. There are already laws and market mechanisms to deal with things like collusion and price gouging. If the government or the free market were doing their jobs, we wouldn’t need extra government “protection”. When the government promises it will tackle these things, it uses vague language to widen its scope and take arbitrary actions. Economics professor Gary Galles describes this dangerous situation.

Effective social cooperation can only be built upon clear rules that constrain government arbitrariness as well as abuses by others. But potential government prosecution for violating an essentially undefined law leaves every decision’s legality subject to the whim of a judge or executive-agency functionary, exercised after the fact. No one can know what actions are safe from prosecution. And combining arbitrariness with huge potential punishments is an open invitation to government abuse.

It can then selectively punish businesses, and is unlikely to find any of its campaign contributors guilty. “Why would the president make a public show of toughness using an approach and terms that fail basic standards of logic, fairness, and constitutionality? Because it gives him power without responsibility.” How could oil companies counter the accusation that they are charging too much? How could the government prove that oil companies’ prices are “too high”? The tough stance on the supposed Big Oil robber barons buys votes from citizens who think that gas prices are high because oil companies are gouging them. Oil prices are influenced by many factors, including the wars in Iraq and Libya, the OPEC cartel (governments of oil-producing countries colluding to limit supply and thus raise prices), government restrictions on oil exploration and drilling, conflict between parasitic national governments and indigenous people in the Niger Delta, rising consumption and the expectation of even more, inflation that pushes down the exchange value of the dollar and thus raises the price of imported oil, and not least gas taxes. But when Ben Bernanke and Barack Obama blame others (“speculators” and the evil Arab are often the culprits), consumers eat it up.

We do not need government to protect us from corporations when free markets provide the best incentive to behave responsibly. The example of the Tylenol recall of 1982 is instructive to any business hoping to remain successful over time. Someone had laced some bottles of Tylenol with potassium cyanide, killing seven people. Johnson and Johnson, the parent company of the manufacturer, had a very clear belief system, the main component of which was that customers came first. There was no debate in the office, no need to weigh short-term gain against customers’ dying. Johnson and Johnson spent $100m recalling and replacing all Extra-Strength Tylenol. They have been profitable since then. Where was government? Not only was it superfluous, it never found out who spiked the pills. It is good that we have some kind of organisation that examines food and drugs to keep the public safe, but why does it have to be governmental? There are no medical researchers and consumer watchdogs anymore? Why does there have to be only one, controlled by the fickle hand of government? What if they miss something, accidentally or deliberately?

It is wrong to believe that corporations do literally anything they can to increase their bottom lines. They do what their shareholders want, and shareholders can and do introduce policies, voted on at shareholder meetings, that curb the power of the corporation to, say, pollute the environment. At least as importantly, corporations have to do what their customers want. If customers want the corporation to stop polluting, and boycott the corporation until it does, the corporation will either change or lose business, and maybe go out of business. Consumer activism works. Corporations have got the message already, which is why many of them are far more ethical than the simplistic picture painted by anti-corporate activists. I have friends who believe in the stereotype that big corporations are evil, but they own laptops, fly in planes, use Google 50 times a day, drink Bacardi and Coke and wash with ten different Procter and Gamble products. What, specifically, is evil about any of the huge companies that provide you with the services you live by? Corporations provide what people want, and they create wealth. If people who buy from them think they are evil, they should stop buying. Have a complaint? Tell Consumer Reports and RipoffReport.com. Get the word out. Buy from their competitors. But don’t resort to the violence of the state to take down a corporation whose actions you disagree with. If corporations get away with murder, it is only because unprincipled consumers do not know or do not care.

Thus, if you do have a problem with a company, try a boycott. A boycott is a market mechanism for action against businesses if ever there was one. And there are plenty of success stories. Other forms of activism can accompany boycotts. One might try to blacklist someone who owns, works for or buys from a corporation that we do not like; in other words, do not let them in your store. Segregation in the southern US was exposed as immoral not when the national guard was called in, but before that, when students in Nashville sat quietly at segregated lunch counters where they were not allowed. The violence perpetrated against them by racist bystanders and the state worked in their favour, and they captured enough hearts and minds to win desegregation. Simple acts of civil disobedience can frequently go much further than calling on the state to impose our goals on others by force.

The government has no role in a free market. Economist Dani Rodrik argues “Modern markets need an infrastructure of transport, logistics, and communication, much of it the result of public investments. They need systems of contract enforcement and property-rights protection. They need regulations to ensure that consumers make informed decisions, externalities are internalised, and market power is not abused. They need central banks and fiscal institutions to avert financial panics and moderate business cycles. They need social protections and safety nets to legitimise distributional outcomes.” But let us consider what he seems to take as given. Some public investments have been made in infrastructure, but now investors and businesses are large enough that they do not need governments to invest in those things anymore. Do we really need government logistics companies when there are a dozen large and many more small international logistics companies? Contracts and property rights might be better protected by private law. Regulations do not ensure that consumers make informed decisions, that externalities are internalised and that market power is not abused. Consumer information does not come from government: it comes from consumers’ own research, sharing of information through forums like RipoffReport.com and word of mouth. That is how it has always spread, and there is no reason to believe government knowledge of the current state and future direction of a market are superior to those of the people on the ground. Central banks and other fiscal institutions (Freddie and Fannie perhaps?) obviously do not avert financial panics and moderate business cycles; in fact, they probably contributed significantly to the most recent market meltdown (see part 1), and to most of the previous ones as well. Governments create moral hazard by being the lender of last resort to everyone from people who cannot pay their mortgage, who should not have bought a house in the first place, to the biggest banks in the system, which received hundreds of billions in tax dollars (and whose executives still got their bonuses) because they were well connected. And I don’t know what it means to “legitimise distributional outcomes”, but if people were not taxed so much they could create their own safety nets. Then Rodrik says that democracies “are still our best safeguard against arbitrary rule.” Democracy does not protect against arbitrary rule: all government is arbitrary rule. The best way to avoid arbitrary rule by others is to avoid government.

Other economists predicted the current financial downturn (Austrian economists prominent among them), and governments did not. The same governments who think digging deeper into the same hole will get you out of it do not listen to the Austrian school however, the school that predicted not only the 2008 meltdown but the Dotcom and 1929 crashes as well (see here and here). Why would they not listen to them? Because governments do not seek wisdom; they seek shovels.

The War on Drugs

July 19, 2011 14 comments

Adam Kokesh, Adam vs the Man: What do you have to say to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition [LEAP] who would say that ending the War on Drugs would lower the rate of deaths of law enforcement officers unnecessarily in the line of duty?

Eric Holder, Attorney General of the United States: I don’t think that’s right.

The logic of the War on Drugs died at birth. Prohibition has never even begun to achieve its stated objectives. How could it? As the astute Pat Buchanan puts it, “There are two sure ways to end this war swiftly: Milton’s way and Mao’s way. Mao Zedong’s communists killed users and suppliers alike, as social parasites. Milton Friedman’s way is to decriminalize drugs and call off the war.” Governments around the world have tried a watered-down, somewhat less totalitarian version of Mao’s way, but they are not achieving his results. What results are they achieving instead?

The consequences

(I have written extensively on the War on Drugs elsewhere. Find my historical analysis of it here.)

Does the criminalisation of drugs help drug users? Why not ask the millions who have been jailed, some for 20 years or more, whose families have been torn apart, because they disagreed with the government’s laws? Joanne Page of the Fortune Society says this is “not a war on drugs; it’s a war on poor people with drug involvement. And the casualties are terrible.”

$1t has been spent enforcing drug laws, with no resulting decrease in drug use. 40m people have been arrested on drug charges since Nixon declared war on drugs 40 years ago. And over 50% of people in overburdened jails in the US are there on drug charges. And yet, in the words of Neill Franklin, executive director of LEAP, “drugs today are more available, more potent and cheaper than ever.” In 2009, the US federal government spent over $2b housing drug-related prisoners. Every 19 seconds, someone in the US is arrested for a drug law violation, 82% of which are for possession. (One estimate asserts that 800,000 a year are arrested on marijuana-related charges alone!) In other words, you are paying so that the government can lock up people with things in their pocket that will never harm you or your children.

Despite the irriting 10th amendment, the US federal government does not recognise all laws passed by states. One type of them is their drug laws. Most states have either legalised medical marijuana or hemp or otherwise decriminalised sale of the plant. The Drug Enforcement Administration regularly raids medical marijuana dispensaries in states that have passed laws legalising them. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here…you know what? Just google it.) Along with the product, it takes the computers and collects the files of people who have bought pot there, apparently holding them so they know who needs to get nabbed next for something they are legally allowed to do. Is it any wonder more and more people are coming to see that the government does not have to care about us? That our safety is the last thing on their mind? That the rule of law lies in tatters? And that this is not what Jesus had in mind? We have a federal government interested in prolonging this devastating war on non violent (and some terminally-ill) people with a middle finger to the constitution. How can this take place in a free society?

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 the real reason to legalise 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.”*

Would drug use skyrocket if drugs were legal? Well, why don’t you do heroin? Because it is illegal? (For that matter, why don’t you kill and rape? Because they are illegal?) When the government tells you what you can and cannot put in your own body, it is claiming ownership over you. Protecting you from yourself is not only a misguided idea, because you know better than any government could about what is right for you, but it is demonstrably false. The government would need to destroy all guns, cigarettes, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, cars, Coca Cola and Big Macs if it wanted to keep you healthy. Maybe it should ban all those things. But in the words of Lev Timofeev, a former Soviet mathematician and analyst of the shadow economy,

Prohibiting a market does not mean destroying it. Prohibiting a market means placing a prohibited but dynamically developing market under the total control of criminal corporations. Moreover, prohibiting a market means enriching the criminal world with hundreds of billions of dollars by giving criminals a wide access to public goods which will be routed by addicts into the drug traders’ pockets. Prohibiting a market means giving the criminal corporations opportunities and resources for exerting a guiding and controlling influence over whole societies and nations. [Find more on the effects of prohibition here.]

Mexico is the newest of those nations. In his book the Lucifer Effect, psychologist Philip Zimbardo explains that our actions and our character depend to a great extent on our situation. If we are placed in a situation where we have power over others, we will probably use that power. Drug lords like Pablo Escobar were not necessarily bad people before they took to drugs. But they saw big opportunities to make big money because of the laws that existed. They needed to protect themselves against the long arm of the law, so they started their own militias, and criminalisation became a war. If there is no possibility to engage in commerce through voluntary transactions, but the demand still exists, the trade will continue but it will become dangerous. That is true of any criminal enterprise in the world. As a result, some 40,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006, not to mention Colombia, Peru and elsewhere in the past 40 years.

The US government has made things worse and killed its own agents. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) sold some 30,000 guns to Mexican drug lords that were used not only to kill innocent Mexican civilians, but eventually US government agents. (See a video that brings the war to your eyes here.) Thousands of Mexicans have protested the War on Drugs, which is fast becoming a civil war brought about by powerful governments that do not have to listen to their people.

Since the War on Drugs guarantees high prices for any illegal drug, it is no wonder poppy farming has become so common in Afghanistan. Supply is in the east but demand is in the west. When the west criminalises drugs, farmers in the east stand to profit. The Taliban now it encourages poppy farming as a way to make money to kill foreign soldiers. Corruption is rampant in Afghanistan. It is the most corrupt country in the world, in fact, according to Transparency International, which said the following: “In poll after poll, Afghans don’t rank the Taliban, terrorism or the economy as their highest worry. Corruption is their top concern and tackling it, their main need.” Not only does government enable high drug prices through prohibition, corruption would not exist without a government because no one would have the power to force people to pay bribes. Not only does the US military now target drug traffickers as part of this ill-conceived war, how is the ISAF supposed to win hearts and minds when its main partner sprays crops in Afghanistan and destroys farmers’ livelihoods? The criminalisation of drugs by the powers that are supposedly at war with the Taliban is shooting oneself in the head to cure one’s headache.

Back on the domestic front, the War on Drugs places huge burdens on the legal system. The backlog of drug cases that divert billions of dollars from the protection of property, the use of expensive courts and trial lawyers to prosecute people for selling a few dollars’ worth of cocaine, the loss of civil liberties, the corruption of law enforcement; these are corollaries of a legalistic approach to prohibiting drug use. Neill Franklin of LEAP explains that most police officers that prosecute the War on Drugs consider themselves soldiers, given orders, expected to uphold the law. But they do not usually spend the time to look at the facts of this pointless war, and as such do not question the criminalisation of drugs. More and more police officers are killed in the line of duty in the US, and you can guess what laws most of them are trying to uphold when they are killed. And yet, because of the law, because the politicians in the back pockets of the pressure groups are in charge, because we put them in charge and then turn our backs to them, the police are under pressure actually to put themselves in harm’s way. LEAP is made up of brave police officers who defy their political masters and stand up for what is right.

The causes

With all these obvious reasons to end the War on Drugs, why does it continue? Does the government care about your health? Is that the reason drugs are illegal? The reason the War on Drugs is so difficult to end is that the government is beholden to—even controlled by—special interest groups. Contrary to what some democrats seem to think, presidents and congresspeople do not wake up in the morning asking what they can do for their country or their constituents. They ask what they can do for their patrons, the lobbyists. Who do you think might benefit from the criminalisation of drugs? Certainly not those looking for treatment. Many laws give rise to new pressure groups. The drug laws have their own. Let’s meet some of them.

Illegal drugs are major competition for legal ones. Tobacco and alcohol companies have no interest in seeing any more drugs on the market. Perhaps that is why they were, for a while, the top funders of Partnership for a Drug Free America. (Now, big pharma contributes the most to Partnership.) Partnership tends not to mention that more than 400,000 people die every year in the US from smoking, 75,000 from alcohol and some 370,000 died from FDA-approved (thank God the government protects us from the market) pharmaceuticals in the past decade (or possibly even more), while the number who have died from marijuana is zero. The government is under pressure from the mighty tobacco and alcohol firms not to legalise their competitors, and has no qualms about killing to keep them happy. If you have ever wondered why lobbyists are so powerful, consider that 80% of those employed as lobbyists by the beer, wine and liquor industry, and 78% of tobacco lobbyists, are former government employees.

Pharmaceutical companies, too, have no interest in letting any other drugs than their own become mainstream. They already face considerable competition from alcohol and tobacco. Their drugs are so high priced (because they can be) that theft from pharmacies is skyrocketing.  No less than the pharmaceutical firms, everyone from clothing manufacturers to paper companies would face steep competition from hemp if it entered the marketplace. But we must protect the public from the stalk of the cannabis plant.

Another reason drugs are still illegal, and one reason the War on Drugs is prosecuted so harshly, is that it pays for a politician to look tough on crime. Crime is only crime because lawmakers say it is, and as such, the more laws there are, the more chances politicians get to look like people who get results. It is the same reason money to protect against terrorism flows like water: the more of your money they spend, the more ability politicians have to appear to be doing something.

Other politicians preside over constituencies that benefit from the prison-industrial complex. With the steady expansion in the number of prisons came the increased number of correctional facility corporations and jobs that rely on them. The special interests driving the increased prison population are one reason why privatisation without a reduction in government power to reward the new industry might not be a good idea. Judge Jim Gray calls the prison guard union California’s strongest lobby group. It oversaw the building of 21 new prisons in the state and encouraged tough new laws (such as the 1994 “three strikes” law) that today have California’s prisons brimming over at almost twice capacity. No wonder they have an interest in full prisons: the average guard makes more than $70,000 a year.

Not all lobby groups are in the private sector. The drug war grants police and prosecutors bigger budgets, which gives them greater power vis-à-vis the public whose money they are spending. The DEA and the ATF receive ever-bigger budgets as well, enabling them to buy cool new equipment to help them do a job they should not be doing in the first place. As their budgets increase, the profits to be made off drugs and the desperation of the groups selling them, the ones created by drug prohibition, increases proportionally, so more people will fight on either side, catching thousands of innocents in the crossfire.

The police have the incentive to steal. In 1970, Congress enacted the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, also known as the Forfeiture Act. It was expanded in 1978, and then again in 1984. According to Jarrett B. Wollstein, “[c]ivil asset forfeiture is based upon the medieval doctrine that when property is involved in a crime, the property becomes ‘guilty’, and can be “arrested” and forfeited, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the property’s owners.” You do not need to be tried or convicted. Thousands of people other than the police have made money informing on their neighbours, even when their neighbours have been found innocent. And anything is fair game. Even the car you drove to try to buy drugs can be seized when you get arrested for it. The court makes money off the fine you have to pay; the police keep the car. Not surprisingly, “the level of seizure activity has exploded since 1984,” says Prof. Bruce Benson of Florida State University. Police can seize cars, jewelry and all the money they can find (even if they only say they suspect it is connected to drugs). Many local police drug units are partially or wholly funded by the assets they seize. And since it is easier to catch the little fish than the big fish, the petty criminals, like buyers and sellers, are the ones who lose most.

The military, too, long involved in South America, has its hand out, too. The long-running turmoil in Colombia has given the US military a pretext to plant military bases there. Protecting its citizens is a great excuse for a government to go to war. The empire thanks you for your understanding.

Finally, just like in so many government-connected corporate scandals, the banks are here too. Money laundering is big business, and banks all over the world have cashed in. (See here, here and here.) Governments could regulate the business, but why would they harass their close friends? All of these groups would lose if drugs were legalised, or if the drug war were won.

Make no mistake: the War on Drugs is not simply a failed policy: it is an understandable, even predictable, result of statism. It started in 1970 when a politician (Richard Nixon) wanted to squash his peaceful enemies (hippies) and distract from his foreign policy agenda (the bombing of Laos and Cambodia), and has accelerated thanks to every other politician who has stood to gain from it. In the end, the War on Drugs is a symptom of big government. Big government is the reason your tax dollars are going toward killing and jailing people for victimless crimes, creating and funding drug cartels, and bringing violence to the streets of your hometown. Big government requires a steady flow of votes and campaign contributions in return for rewarding special interest groups with tax dollars. As such, it will not reverse until enough people threaten to withhold their votes for the party that does not end the drug war. However, the reality of the criminalisation of drugs has not hit most people, and will not unless they understand it.

No more excuses

Not only us crazy anarchists understand the logic against prohibition. The Global Commission on Drug Policy reported that “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world…billions of dollars are wasted on ineffective programs,…millions of citizens are sent to prison unnecessarily,… [and] hundreds of thousands of people die from preventable overdoses and diseases.” The report was endorsed by Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico—and 16 other notable names, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. Some of these thinkers have said they are not strictly in favour of the outright legalisation of drugs. Fine. Adopt half measures and you will get half results. Alternatively, we could commit to the full legalisation of drugs and stop having to worry about all this nonsense.

I heard someone say that legalising drugs would not make a difference to the gangs because then they would engage in different activities to survive. But that ignores the fact that the economic incentive of gang membership is the very lucrative drug trade itself. If gangs switched to, say, stealing cars, they would be running far greater risks than running drugs for less money, and their membership would shrivel. Until that happens, expect many more dead everywhere. The most dangerous, most addictive drug is not crack or heroin but laws that create black markets and reward special interests.

It is also said that only the less harmful drugs, like marijuana, should be legal, because legalisation amounts to sanction. But that argument misses the point. All drugs should be legal for two reasons. First, on a purely cost-benefit analysis, there is every reason to believe that legalisation would save money and lives, including through overdose. It would drastically reduce the influence of criminal organisations around the world, reduce the corruption of law enforcement and politicians, reduce harm done by unregulated black market substitutes for drugs whose harm has much to do with their illicit nature, stop tearing families and lives apart, and reduce the incidence of police destruction of property through break ins.

But an even better reason 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, all drugs should be legal.

*Moreover, as economist Walter Block points out (and I second), 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?

Terrorism and airport security

July 17, 2011 4 comments

You may have noticed recently that yet more airline regulations have made lines longer and slower, and restricted what can be carried on board further, all in the name of security. We want to be safe, no doubt about it. We want to believe that our government, whose job is ostensibly to safeguard our security, can stop terrorism. It cannot.

9/11 was a godsend to George Bush. It made his popularity shoot through the roof and gave him a free hand to expand the government and the powers of the president. Saying that he would catch the evildoers made his subjects feel safe. One terrorist attack in New York sent people in Florida, Texas and Tennessee running for hills. I remember during the 2004 election hearing more than one American interviewed say that they were voting for George Bush because, without him, the terrorists might take over. Terrorists cannot take over the United States, but they can goad it into destroying itself. Al Qaeda achieved a lot to that effect. But now that bin Laden is dead, I guess there will be no more terrorism.

What are the odds that you will die of terrorism? They are actually less than the odds you will win the lottery. But politicians love terrorism because they can create new illusions to make you believe they are in control. Vote for me, I am tough on terrorism. I have a plan to kill all the terrorists. They try to get us thinking about terrorism when we are more likely to die of snakebites, drowning in the bathtub and eating peanut butter. (Peanut butter grows a deadly mould when it goes off. That’s the limit of my helpful household hints.) They maintain the illusion of security by getting us to confuse real safety with safety measures. Believing is seeing.

Actually, I wonder if the likelihood of a terrorist bombing on an airplane will increase. The Transport Security Administration, the TSA, it turns out, is not the rock we once thought it was. According to a House Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations (presumably they are the ones to thank for keeping us safe, with a name like that), there have been 25,000 airport security breaches in the past ten years. Representative Jason Chaffetz called the TSA’s operating procedures “security theater”. “There’s a better, smarter, safer way to do this, and the TSA isn’t prioritizing here,” Chaffetz said. “How do we be more secure but less invasive? We have to find that balance.” Fortunately, there is a way. Leave it to a politician not to realise it does not lie with more government.

Airplane security itself is a popular idea—we want to know that the planes we are flying on are safe. As such, there is no reason to believe that the airlines could not conduct sufficiently thorough security checks themselves. After all, if someone with a bomb got through, the airline’s credibility would collapse and it could go out of business. The market holds it accountable. But how is the government accountable in the same way? Which politician can you blame and threaten not to vote for when the TSA makes a mistake? It wasn’t MY fault, every single one of them would say. The TSA, like most government departments, is thus wholly unaccountable, and agents can do the most irrational security checks without fear of losing their jobs.

The TSA has the authority to feel up your children. You may recall a viral video of a TSA agent rubbing a young girl’s inner thighs and running her fingers inside the top of the girl’s jeans. How many six year olds do you think might be carrying concealed AK-47s? Obviously not all TSA agents are pedophiles, but if you were a pedophile, you would have found your calling. Is there any reason they thought a 95 year-old woman was a security threat and ordered her to remove her adult diaper? The private sector, the accountable part of the world, would never have done that. TSA agent rules also state they should give extra “attention” to anyone who shows contempt for them. That’s actually everyone. It makes sense to pull aside the angry people, because, as Gene Healy of the Cato Institute put it, “making a scene on the airport security line is sound strategy for anyone trying to sneak a bomb onto a plane.” They now call screeners “officers” and give them uniforms that look almost like those of police. A pilot who writes for Salon had a pair of safety scissors, you know, the ones for children that couldn’t cut butter, taken away from him by airport security. The petty dictators in the bureaucracy love their little scraps of power, and they win more and more of it. (What would George Carlin say about it?)

Oh, sorry, sorry, airport security staff, you are just keeping us safe. So is the over one trillion dollars that has been spent since 9/11. Professors John Mueller and Mark Stewart co-authored a paper that found that, “to be deemed cost-effective, [the extra trillion] would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day.” They also found that anti-terrorism spending outpaced all anti-crime spending by $15b a year. I wonder if ever more security at the airport has done anything at all to make us safer. It goes without saying that it hasn’t prevented any terrorist bombing of malls, public buildings, public transportation and so on, because there are no security checks there. Making the airplanes safe is like trying to stop up one hole in a sieve. Besides, how would a machine that checks for bombs and guns have prevented 9/11? No bombs or guns were involved. (Find more on how overblown terrorism is here.) It doesn’t really matter. Your odds of being killed by a terrorist, according to all risk analysts, economists and anyone else who knows what they are talking about, are essentially zero. The private sector—the insurance companies—offer terrorism insurance, implying they have a handle on the risks the government does not. Because these people look at facts, rather than emotions, they know that statistically you are more likely to drown in the bathtub and die falling off a ladder. Maybe we should ban bathtubs and ladders.

But that’s not the point. For a politician, no spending of your money is too much spending of your money, and no excuse is more effective than keeping you safe and protecting your freedom. Increasing spending increases the size, scope and power of government, and thus its freedom vis-à-vis yours. And the more spending bills get passed, the more riders there are on those bills that give money to friends. Why do you let such incompetent and corrupt people handle your money? I guess because you don’t have a choice.

A great way of sucking your money away from you is to scare you. On Feb 11, 2003, FBI chief Robert Mueller told the Senate Committee on Intelligence “the greatest threat is from al-Qaeda cells in the US that we have not yet identified” and claimed somehow to know that “al-Qaeda maintains the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the US with little warning.” When he went back to the committee two years later, he never mentioned the secret FBI report that said that after more than three years of intense hunting, the agency had not found a single terrorist sleeper cell in the US, even though the 2002 intelligence estimate said there were up to 5000 terrorists connected to al-Qaeda. Perhaps this oversight was induced by paranoia, as was presumably that which led George Bush to talk about nuclear weapons and Saddam Hussein in the same breath.

Every day on the news for years after 9/11 (and probably still to this day, though I avoid TV news now), some government spokesjackoff or his corporate media servant told us about the horrors of terrorism to our fragile little countries. It was as if each news program, each politician, each conservative think tank moron was baiting his competitors into saying more about terrorism, how wonderful America is, and how bad our enemies are going to get it. And the public (ie. the average voter) tended to parrot their views while believing they are thinking for themselves.

And I have not even mentioned the kicker: government is the main cause of terrorism. Just ask the terrorists. Governments like the US cause the grievances terrorists rail against and governments like Saudi Arabia fund Islamist militancy around the world. By the way, those people who say terrorists are irrational and can’t be reasoned with don’t know what they are talking about. There is overwhelming evidence out there to the contrary, available to anyone who is willing to listen to people other than George Bush on the subject. But the reason we work so hard to combat it is that we do not understand it. Terrorism is almost always in response to state aggression. Ask Kurds, Chechens, Palestinians, Afghanis, Basques, Uighurs and the North Irish why some of their compatriots resort to terrorism and they will point the finger at a state that had repressed them for many years before they got desperate for a solution that was not available through peaceful means. And governments know it. Remember when Osama was assassinated in May and Barack said the world was now a safer place? Embassies and airports around the world immediately took extra precautions.

Guns

July 16, 2011 3 comments

Most people I have met are in favour of gun control. Gun control ranges from a government monopoly on all weapons, to limiting assault weapons and heavier arms to government use, to only banning guns from certain people, such as the mentally ill. I used to agree with most gun control advocates that only government agents should carry guns, but no longer. Guns should be for almost everybody.

The reason that the Second Amendment to the American Constitution was written was because the founding fathers had experience with a government that attempted to disarm its citizens, thereby robbing them of their ability to rebel. Anti-gun Americans today may be right in thinking that they are not under imminent mortal danger from their government, but their house could still be broken into. There are plenty of criminals in the United States, just like everywhere else, and the idea that a gun could be in any or all houses is a good disincentive from breaking in. Gun control laws say not only that you are not allowed to defend yourself against the state, but also that you must put your faith in the police and military to defend you against everything from robbers to foreign invaders. If all houses have (or at least could have) a gun, not only could one protect one’s property against break ins, one could protect against government aggression. Many states have turned on their citizens after disarming them, killing countless numbers who cannot fight back. Imagine if Yugoslavs had been allowed to own guns. Had the same war taken place, the ethnic cleansing of large areas of the country might not have happened, as people would have been able to defend their homes. Perhaps no one would have died at Srebrenica, when some 8000 unarmed, innocent people were killed because only a select group, duty-bound to defend, had access to firearms, and they were nowhere to be found.

We thus need to consider the moral case for gun ownership. What could happen when another state invades our gun-restricted country where only the government has arms? If the opposing military broke through our government’s defenses, we would be powerless to stop it from occupying all the seats of government and taxing and oppressing us as it wished. Let us consider a different situation, one where there is no government and no military, only the people with guns in their houses (or perhaps militias). The invaders have no government offices to occupy and no tax collectors to send round. They could, conceivably, go door to door collecting taxes, but even this would be exorbitant; and if they are at risk of being shot, they will think a third time.

I do not think a country like the US, or say Yemen, even needs a military. There are so many guns of various types, and knowledge of how to make bombs, that in case of invasion, a united America would fight a successful guerrilla war against the invaders.

One objection to guns I can understand is that guns kill. The NRA’s “guns don’t kill people: people kill people” is fatuous in that a gun without someone holding it is useless. Silly logic designed to appeal to the NRA’s membership. The fact is, a home with a gun in it is a home where you could kill someone. But surely knives, axes, martial arts, ropes and fire could also kill people. Guns do it particularly effectively, but removing guns from the home does not make people unable to kill.

Gangs have access to guns. Yes, and they are just as able to have them in armed societies like the US as in unarmed ones. The difference is, in the US they are paying licensed corporations to buy them, and elsewhere they are paying other black market operators and supporting organised crime. Thus, the people charged with defending us, the police, with a monopoly on gun ownership, could be spending their time and our money chasing an enemy that was created by their very existence. And in places like Japan, where gangs have fewer guns, they still kill with bats and knives. Finally, the 9/11 terrorists, the most successful of all time, had no weapons at all. If you are ruthless, you do not need a gun.

Serial killers and the mentally ill have access to guns. Certainly, but currently it is the government’s job to ensure these people are marked down as serial killers. If they have not killed anyone yet or given reason to think they will, you should not take away their rights. Besides, guns do not produce serial killers, and serial killers could live in any country at any time. They will use whatever weapon they have to do God’s work.

It is nonetheless worth trying to prevent guns from falling into the hands of serial killers. One simple solution might be to demand of the gun market a database of all people who have been sold guns, with gun stores listing the basic information of everyone (though also protecting the information in the same way other companies do), and people would only buy guns from a dealer who contributes to the database. If an undesirable wants a gun, we have his information.

Moreover, people with a propensity for violence will often join the police or the military, thus becoming agents of the government, employing legal violence in its name. Of course, not everyone in those institutions has violent impulses, but you can be sure that many people who love shooting gravitate toward groups where it is encouraged. Perhaps that is not an argument against gun ownership but for stricter controls on police and military power. But since that power exists, we should be allowed to defend ourselves against its unfair and arbitrary use.

It might be better if we could decide not as countries but as communities if we would like guns. If ours is to be a gun free community, we can make everyone who enters it sign something. If we want to give everyone the choice, we can tell them when they arrive that some members of our community have firearms in their houses.

I will probably never buy a gun. I will probably never turn a gun on another living person. But I want the freedom to do so, simply to protect those in need. I can’t if there is too much gun control.

We need to be forced: human nature and the Leviathan

May 14, 2011 12 comments

One of the most influential philosophers of the Anglo-Saxon world was Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes argued from his perspective of human nature that without an all-powerful force, which he called the Leviathan, to rule over us, we would live in a state of nature, which he viewed as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes provided a pretty frightening view of human nature, but unfortunately for him it has been largely disproven by science in the past few generations. Unfortunately for us, the legacy of the Leviathan is with us to this day.

Here are some facts on which scholars of human nature are pretty sure. First, we are endowed with a sense of reciprocity. In other words, if you do something for me, I feel indebted to you and will do something for you. That is why we have been trading for so many years. Pre-state traders never needed governments to secure contracts because they understood the principle of reciprocity, the fact that everyone would look down on you if you broke a deal, and that you could make lots of money if you kept your word. As Richard Dawkins puts it in Nice Guys Finish First,

Of course there is a great deal of cooperation in human society. A city…could never have been built or maintained without huge amounts of cooperation between its inhabitants over centuries. And we do it naturally, of our free will, without having to be forced into it. But is our cooperation to do with our ability to think deeply, rationally and philosophically, or have our brains evolved as advanced social organs, designed to police tit for tat reciprocity, to calculate past favours, balance debts; an organ of social calculation designed to make us feel angry when we feel we’ve been cheated and guilty when we know we are the cheat?

Cooperation beats cheating over time. In fact, eBay is modern proof of this fact: if you keep your word, your reputation is secured; if you cheat someone, don’t expect to make any more deals. We have evolved to trade with each other, and trade is all about sharing benefits. And since most people do keep their word, eBay works out pretty well.

Second, to address another major argument of statists, it is believed that without force, many of the great things we have would never get done. For instance, taking care of people in the hospital. If people were not forced to pay for each other, they would be dying. I do not really understand where these arguments come from. People donate to charities all the time. No taxation would mean we would have that much more to donate.

You see, another feature of our nature is sympathy. Sympathy is natural, not only in humans but in most mammals and birds, in fact. It stems from the parental instinct to take care of people who are weaker and needier. And the further our awareness of others extends, from our children to our family to our community to our nation and, for more and more people nowadays, to all humans, the more strongly we believe we should give. That is why every society and religion considers helping and sacrificing for others a virtue. It is why you give up your seat to old, crippled or pregnant people on the bus. Taking care of others is known to lead to happiness, calmness and in some cases even the alleviation of physical pain. Right now, governments are organised along national lines, which means the people we are forced to pay for are part of our exclusive national group. But charitable giving, the virtuous side of income redistribution, crosses borders, to anyone we feel is deserving. Why? Because of our ability to sympathise. (By the way, foreign aid is nothing like international charitable giving, and is usually far more detrimental than helpful.)

What if I don’t want to pay for the War on Drugs, the War on Cancer, the War on Afghanistan or any of the other big government policies that are working out so well? Well, I could petition the government, I could protest, I could ask really nicely, I could go into politics. All those things are true. But they take a lot of time, and it’s a big fight against insider special interests. And what if there is more than one program or law I don’t like? You eliminate one after a huge national campaign, and then you need to run another to eliminate the next one. Besides, what often happens is that even if a government caves and repeals a law you spend a million dollars and a million days trying to have repealed, they can still introduce some other bill that, on the surface is different but whose substance is the same. And that happens a lot more than I would like to think. Isn’t there a simpler way?

How about I just pay for the things I want to pay for? I’ll give to sick people, at least, to sick people who can’t afford insurance. I’ll give to children who need to educated, at least, to those who can’t afford it. And I bet you will too. Giving feels good. That’s universal. It’s virtuous. Being forced does not make you virtuous, and neither does voting for someone who will force others.

Government cannot force virtue. But even if it could, then surely all the good things would have been done already. Surely poverty would have been eliminated, cancer would have been cured and everyone would be happy. But that’s not the case. Government has not done any of those things. So not only are we being forced to take care of the poor, the poor aren’t even being taken care of! That is the illusion of government.

But there are some jerks out there, right? So if everyone pays “their fair share”, whatever the government decides that is, no one can cheat, right? No one would just get a free ride on roads someone else paid for. In fact, we have people like that already. Anyone who doesn’t pay much tax (including, say, government employees who pay less in taxes than they make in taxpayer dollars) is a free rider that way.

Second, again, you cannot force virtue. Giving to charity makes you virtuous, and when you do that, not only do you feel good but you look better in the eyes of others.  Saving the life of a child playing by the railroad tracks doesn’t benefit you personally but doing so would earn you the respect and admiration of your community. So you have an interest in doing it. Selfish people who would let that child die would be shunned by their community as heartless or cruel. Those people lose out big time in life.

Third, back to the free riders, we don’t need everyone to give to cancer research to eliminate cancer. Only enough people who really believe in it need to give. Everyone else can contribute to their causes, and we can solve society’s problems without force.

Because it is assumed that “we are all selfish”, it is inferred that we will all free ride, and nothing would ever get done. Not only do I not know why you would think we simply cannot organise ourselves long enough to agree to build a road, I would like to give an example of when that I think point has been disproven.

I live in Egypt, a country that has just gone through a revolution. During the revolution, the police were off the streets and the government sent thugs around to terrorise the people into accepting the government back into their lives. However, the people organised and defended their neighbourhoods, museums and other buildings, and each other in the face of government coercion. Not only did they defend themselves well, they provided each other with food and water, gaining a feeling of community and comradeship in the process, and as my friend told me, the streets had never been cleaner. Hundreds of local committees sprang up in the wake of the violence, making it obvious that even after decades of repression, the people can put together a civil society in a matter of weeks.

Families of over 70 people who died in the revolution from the Cairo neighbourhood of al-Zawya al-Hamra have said they do not want the police back on their streets. They have had enough of systematic human rights abuses by the organisation that, more than any other, is supposed to be governed by the rule of law. As I walk around post-revolutionary Egypt today, I wonder what the government would be useful for. Entire neighbourhoods are bereft of police (whose roles have been reduced to that of traffic cops) and yet crime is minimal. I wonder why others would want to deny people their freedom and force them to pay for state boondoggles, like the third subway line that has been under construction for the past generation. I think it is wrong of people to try to push their ideology on people who so obviously do not need it.

The example of Egypt should not be surprising, however, to anyone who took part in the abortive uprisings against communism in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and during the Cuban Revolution. While historians busy themselves with the proclamations and deliberations of the politicians, they do not see the people in the streets taking care of each other. Workers in Prague worked for free, and food was distributed. The people in Hungary were without coercive authority for weeks, and no one stole or got drunk. The only violence was against the hated security police. Otherwise, the state was nowhere to be found.

Now consider your community. Consider the hospitals. Imagine all public funding for and government control over hospitals ended. Would the hospitals close immediately? If the patients or the patients’ relatives could not pay for all the services they need, would no one else? Would no one volunteer? Compassionate people—most people—already believe those people should have some care, however they believe is the best way to provide it. They would contribute something.

Self-organisation, or spontaneous order, is a fact of nature, and not just human nature. It characterises everything from the development of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth to language, the internet, the market economy and the Egyptian revolution. Social order will happen with or without a government, as it always has. People make and accept new rules all the time. For instance, children in schools for the deaf who do not yet know sign language create their own in staggeringly short spaces of time. Most people who say we need a political or social hierarchy do not understand this aspect of life. And spontaneous order allocates resources far more efficiently than any kind of hierarchy, planning and centralised national leadership could. Some democrats seem to believe that a few smart, disinterested people should guide the economy and guide our choices. But no one possesses the vast amount of knowledge required to do so. Even the manufacture of a pencil has no one mastermind at the top directing every move. The only way to have freedom and benefit from it is to stop trying to control everything and let things happen naturally.

Rules already exist in every society, regardless of the presence of a government to enforce them its own way, and new rules would arise in the absence of government coercion. That is the way we are. People who disagree tend to think that the end of the leviathan would mean everyone would start killing each other. But why would we break from the rules we have already agreed upon? Would you? Do you know anyone you think would? So who would? With a few exceptions, the same people who are doing it now. And they can kill people because police do not prevent crime but punish it. The threat of punishment is a deterrent, of course, but we have crime nonetheless. The roots of crime are complex, but the reason most of us do not commit violent crimes probably has much to do with rules. The argument sometimes then goes back to the opportunist psychopath who will build a militia to take power…and the anarchist wonders what the difference between that and a government is. At least if the people had their freedom, they could and would defend it.

Not only do we follow rules when others are around, most of us have internalised most rules of our culture to the extent that we follow them when no one is looking, and feel guilty when we transgress them. Many of us are opposed to lying (or at least avoid weaving a web of deception), we risk gossip and shaming, and even fear an omnipresent celestial ruler who doles out punishment for crimes no matter how many humans know about them. Reputation is very important to most humans, because the worse our reputation, the more trouble we have getting what we want in business and other relationships. Trying to fake generosity, sincerity and rule-obedience is problematic, because people notice inconsistencies and facial giveaways.

We are also able to take responsibility for ourselves. Anarchy means both liberty and responsibility. “With power comes responsibility” is paradoxical: power necessarily takes away responsibility. Statists who say they believe in liberty with responsibility seem to believe the government is our collective conscience. Only individuals have consciences. Denying them their liberty, in any form, means denying them the opportunity to take responsibility, and asking someone else (someone who will use violence) to be responsible for us. Give them the right to act on their consciences and they will, in general, act responsibly.

Unfortunately, our conscience is in combat with our sense of obedience to authority. Stanley Milgram demonstrated that about 6 out of 10 people (in his experiment, at least) will follow, to the bitter end, the commands of an authority figure. They might torture and kill, but if they can devolve responsibility to a higher authority and claim to have been obeying orders, people are capable of anything. That is why anarchists want to smash coercive hierarchies, eliminate institutionalised violence where any psychopath can get his or her hands on it and have everyone question authority.

The propensity to establish and obey authority must be resisted. It is not necessary to dominate others. The drive to dominate is partly a result of fear. As the actor playing Thabo Mbeki in Endgame puts it, “We know that you Afrikaners have paid in blood for your country, as we have. We know, too, that it was from your suffering that the system of apartheid was incubated. The need to dominate is often a consequence of survival.” Later, in private, an Afrikaner professor says that the fear was that white people would be punished for all the injustice they had created. Dominance is part of our nature as well. Creating institutions of peacekeeping is still important.

It is worth considering one of the main reasons Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined gives for the thesis of his book is the Leviathan. Violence has declined, he says, because of the existence of a state with a legal monopoly on violence that has disarmed or perhaps just pacified its citizens. I do not disagree with his assessment. It is impossible to say, of course, what the world would have been like if 100 or 200 or 1000 or 5000 years ago people had decided to abolish states, kingdoms and empires. I still think people would have organised to protect themselves and do everything else they wanted. Nonetheless, if we are dealing with the world as it is, there is still no reason to believe we need government for the future. Things are different now.

Some small-scale tribes engage in warfare on far deadlier scales than the industrialised world experiences. As Dr Pinker’s book propounds, we have become more “civilised”. We have complex and diverse societies with rules and leaders and individuals who want to do things for themselves and others and not hurt people. We cooperate with people we do not meet and make friends with people from countries we have never heard of. Trade and cultural exchange have made us far less warlike. Peace, freedom, justice and equality have become selfless aspirations for the whole world. As such, I wonder if Dr Pinker misdiagnoses the problem, believing it is lack of central authority keeping everyone at bay, rather than lack of exposure to complex societies. If the power of the state went away over time, taking its wars, its police states, its expensive health care and poor education systems with it, we would still engage in commerce, give to the needy and organise. In fact, we would do so more than today, as most trade and movement are only hindered by the state.

Here is one more fact about human nature. Humans have an unconscious bias in favour of decisions they have already made, because we believe we are right and we want to be certain of it. As a result, when we vote, we are far more likely to believe we voted for the right person than not, even in the face of evidence that the guy is a crook. It is much easier to continue to believe something than to change one’s mind. That applies to democracy as an idea. Anyone who has learned and discussed with people why democracy is best, anyone who has participated in democracy, will have a hard time accepting a new idea. Just the idea of no longer being forced will take time to understand. But it is worth understanding.