Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Drug wars, bad results and good intentions.

This ought to be news. Whether it will be remains to be seen.

The “this” to which I refer is an editorial penned by three former presidents from Latin America. The authors are Fernando Cardoso, the former president of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria, the former president of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo the former president of Mexico.

With one voice the three former presidents announce: “The war on drugs has failed.” They are right. Here is some of what they write:
Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven't worked. Violence and the organized crime associated with the narcotics trade remain critical problems in our countries. Latin America remains the world's largest exporter of cocaine and cannabis, and is fast becoming a major supplier of opium and heroin. Today, we are further than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs.

Over the last 30 years, Colombia implemented all conceivable measures to fight the drug trade in a massive effort where the benefits were not proportional to the resources invested. Despite the country's achievements in lowering levels of violence and crime, the areas of illegal cultivation are again expanding. In Mexico -- another epicenter of drug trafficking -- narcotics-related violence has claimed more than 5,000 lives in the past year alone.

The revision of U.S.-inspired drug policies is urgent in light of the rising levels of violence and corruption associated with narcotics. The alarming power of the drug cartels is leading to a criminalization of politics and a politicization of crime. And the corruption of the judicial and political system is undermining the foundations of democracy in several Latin American countries.
That the former leaders of three nations have publicly come forward to support the end of the drug war is big news.

Of course, I think these men are correct, not because illicit drugs are good but because drug wars are bad. If we investigate drugs there is no doubt in mind that we will find harm. If we investigate the war on drugs we find even more harm. In fact, the harm done by a bad solution to a real problem is worse than the harm done by the problem itself.

To call for legalizing drugs is to say one is pro-drugs. Just because I favor freedom of religion doesn’t mean I’m not really an atheist. One of the biggest fallacies in modern political thinking is that opposition to an alleged solution to a problem means one doesn’t believe there is a problem.

Lots of problems exist and there are lots of theoretical solutions to those problems. I oppose the drug war because it is a very bad solution that compounds the problem. I oppose the bail out and DC spending spree to the “crisis” because I believe those measures will make things worse, not better. My lack of support for socialized medicine is not because I’m pro-disease. Just because I want prostitution legalized doesn’t mean I want you to become a whore (if its already too late, please don’t tell me).

Another lesson from the drug war is that intentions don’t matter. Many of the people who constructed the war on drugs sincerely wanted to stop harm to our society and to individuals. They actually cared. Caring is not enough. In fact, caring doesn’t matter when it comes to solutions.

If you have the clap and an uncaring physician gives you penicillin it will work regardless of the physicians demeanor or concerns. If he shot you with sugar water, but really, really cared, it will also not matter. Good solutions work regardless of the compassion behind them. Bad solutions don’t work no matter how compassionate your motives.

I love cats. I’m very, very fond of them. Show me a kitten and my heart melts. If I’m driving down the road and a kitten runs in front of the car my compassion will shoot through the roof. But if I step on the gas, instead of the brakes, I’ll still be heartbroken over one flat cat. My love for cats won’t turn a bad solution (the gas pedal) into a good one (the brakes).

In fact, even bad intentions can have good consequences. The horrendously bad “bantu homeland” policies of the apartheid governments created little pockets of land that were “officially” not under South African jurisdiction. So those who enjoyed gambling just popped over this unmanned border and gambled. Erotica that was banned in South Africa was openly sold in the various homelands. Even television that was banned by the apartheid regime was legal over TV Bop (short for Bophuthatswana).

Since the government of Bophuthatswana was nominally independent it could allow television that was banned by the South African government. And since television signals are not stopped by the imaginary lines politicians draw in the sand those signals were available to South Africans. The result was that many people could watch news that was blacked out in South Africa, or television shows that were banned.

The homelands were a policy built entirely on bad intentions. Yet many of the unintended consequences were beneficial to freedom. Similarly many of the best intended policies that float about will have entirely negative unintended consequences.

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