Healthy Societies Are Efficient

Efficiency isn’t everything, but healthy societies and people need it.

If you want the deep explanation of why that’s true, read about Charles Darwin’s observations of birds (finches) on the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America.

Each island had a slightly different environment and food sources. On each island, the birds’ beaks had evolved to a shape most efficient for getting food on that particular island. Earlier birds with inefficient beaks had died out, so efficient beaks enhanced the survival of the birds that had them.

Humans are not birds, but the same principle applies: traits that enhance our survival are likely to predominate, while those that harm our survival are likely to vanish. That’s why, for example, we have the basic concepts we do: male and female, people and things, and so on. Those concepts work. Faddish and incoherent concepts such as “transgender” do not.

For societies, it’s efficient for people to have a stock of shared concepts, words, and cultural references that help their people communicate. Societies that have those things are more likely to survive and prosper than societies without them.

For example, a friend of mine recently joked that the future might be worse than the present. I replied simply, “Sufficient unto the day …,” and he knew what I meant. It was a reference to a verse in the Bible:

“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:34)

To the extent that people have shared cultural touchpoints, their societies are not only more efficient but also more harmonious. My reference to the Bible both communicated my meaning and signaled to my friend that we were members of the same “in-group,” which inclines us to help and cooperate with each other.

I recently encountered a similar cultural touchpoint in studying the Chinese language. One speaker said “gèng shàng yī céng lóu.” It translates as “go up to the next level,” and means to improve, strive, or reach a goal.

But as they say in television commercials, “there’s more.” Someone who grew up in China would recognize the phrase as a reference to a poem from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), titled “Climbing the Stork Tower:”

The white sun
Sinks behind the hills.
The Yellow River rushes
Forward to the sea.
To get a view
Of 300 miles,
Go up the tower
One more story of height.

Tr. by Edward C. Chang

When Chinese people use that phrase, they both communicate efficiently and signal their membership in same in-group. It strengthens their society and encourages cooperation.

China has its shortcomings, just like every country that has ever existed. But it cares less about appeasing malcontents and humoring the mentally ill than it does about building a strong society of people who work together for the common good. The Chinese have learned a lot from us, but to promote social solidarity, we could learn a lot from them.

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Always To Be Blessed

It’s seldom that a two-line passage from a poem can explain so much that’s wrong with the world. But Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man (1732) has just such a passage:

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
Man never is, but always to be, blest.”

Pope’s basic point is that we humans are wanting creatures. No matter how good our lives are, we always feel that they could be better and should be better.

We want more money. We want whatever new gadget is the shiny object of the day. We want more respect. We want to live in a nicer place. On and on. When it’s a motive for us to work hard and create good things, it’s a positive force.

But it’s more than just that. After we get what we want, the novelty wears off. Soon, we want something else. We can only want what we do not have. After we get it, our desire for it is sated. But we still desire — more, and more, and more.

It’s a basic principle of economics: Human wants are unlimited, but our resources to satisfy those wants are limited. As a result, all societies must make choices — somehow — about what to produce, how much, and who gets it.

And that’s where we come back to Pope’s insight. We always hope to be blessed — but as soon as we are, we take our blessing for granted and yearn for a new blessing. The things for which we yearn depend on our personalities and circumstances, so they’re somewhat unpredictable. It often happens that even we don’t know what we want until we see it.

Why Command Economies Don’t Work

That’s the first thing we can learn from Pope’s insight: command economies don’t work — at least if we define “work” as doing the most good for the largest number of people.

In a command economy, government officials and other people in power decide what the economy will produce, how much it will cost, who will produce it, and who can have it. Americans are getting a taste of a command economy under the Covid regime, which declares that some goods and services are “essential” and others are not.

However, even if the people in power have only good intentions — which they often don’t — it’s impossible for them to know the desires and needs of all the different people in the economy. What would it take for people to feel “blessed”? It’s different for everyone, and it changes rapidly in unpredictable ways. A bureaucrat at an agency in Washington has no way to know what it’s going to be, even if he cared.

A free market is more flexible and responsive, with millions of people who try to profit by finding ways to satisfy each other’s needs. Some ventures succeed, and others don’t. But the result is better for the vast majority of people.

In a command economy, the only people who are certain to get what they want are the people giving the commands. Americans can see that now, too. Politicians go into office as paupers and come out as multi-millionaires. “Graft” is no longer a shameful secret: it’s the main business model of American politics.

But the point is — per Alexander Pope — that politicians could be as pure as a newborn baby and as smart as Albert Einstein, but they still couldn’t make a command economy work for anyone other than themselves and their friends.

Why Some People Are Always Unhappy

Another conclusion is obvious: If we constantly obsess about what we don’t have, we must inevitably ignore what we do have.

Especially in Western countries that are still relatively prosperous, coasting on the fumes of our past achievements, we enjoy countless blessings but often take them for granted.

We do not pause to notice that we have plenty to eat, comfortable places to live, and options beyond the wildest dreams of even the richest people only a century ago; options  still beyond the reach of millions even today, in despotic countries around the world.

Why A Perfect Society Is Impossible

And that leads into the third conclusion: A perfect society is impossible, if by “perfect” we mean a society in which everyone is happy and satisfied all the time.

As flawed human beings, we feel that we never are, but always are to be blessed — someday, when people are nicer and fairer to us, institutions and customs reflect our moral values, and nobody disagrees with our basic beliefs. We’re always looking for a better place that we’re sure is just over the horizon.

And compared to the “better place” that we’ve never seen, that we’ve only imagined, our real societies seem shallow, shabby, and cruel. Some of us are so transfixed by the utopia in our heads that we try to destroy the society we have, on the assumption that whatever replaces it will necessarily be better.

But it’s not necessarily so — in fact, it’s not even probably so. The same impulse for more and better that motivates some people to do good things, motivates other people to do bad and destructive things.

Desire is part of our nature as humans. If it’s moral and rational, it’s a good thing. But if it leads us to break every rule we used to think was wise, leads us to tear down institutions and ideals that sustained us for generations, then it’s likely to be a bad thing.

Alexander Pope knew it in 1732. How many people know it in 2021?

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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You Can’t Idiot-Proof the World

There’s no way to make the world safe for idiots.

No matter what you do, it can go wrong somehow. And then it won’t be safe, for idiots or anyone else.

I thought of that while watching “Love Crossed,” a Chinese TV series. In one scene, the main character is walking in a subway tunnel. And the subtitles area displayed a warning:

“Dangerous action. Please do not try this at home.”

In other words, if you have a subway tunnel in your house, don’t walk in it.

How stupid does a person have to be in order to need a warning like that?

How stupid does a person have to be in order to think that other people need a warning like that?

Treating safety as our highest value is ruining our societies. Government officials have always lied to us on occasion, but now they do it continuously.

They claim that their lies are “noble” because we’re too stupid to make our own decisions. They know what’s best for us. And for them. Mostly for them.

Life involves risk. That’s always true. Our only choice is which risks to take and which risks to avoid.

But a life spent cowering in the corner is not a life. It’s a tragedy.

Someday, a big rock (or its equivalent) will drop on your head and that will be that.

Until then, free your mind. Live your life.

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The Basic Truths Are The Same

My mentor Brand Blanshard, a philosophy professor at Yale, said that “the basic truths of life are the same for every honest mind, whether atheist or devotee.”

My grandfather, a Methodist minister, said that “Every person you meet knows something that you don’t know. So pay attention.”

Confucius, a Chinese sage, said that “Even when walking in a party of only three, I can always be certain of learning from the other two.”

My father, a physician, said that “Smart people learn from their mistakes. Really smart people learn from other people’s mistakes.”

Confucius said that “In the presence of a good man, think about how you can learn to equal him. In the presence of a bad man, remember what you know is right.”

I guess that Prof. Blanshard was correct: the basic truths of life are the same, no matter who you are, when or where you live.

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Is Racism a Useful Concept?

I recently participated in an academic discussion about whether or not “racism” is a useful concept.

Amazingly, the discussion was cordial and rational except for the moderator and one participant who was a graduate student in some version of victims’ studies. The moderator occasionally got a little hot under the collar, while the graduate student mostly spouted a lot of jargon and gibberish. She’ll do well in academia.

In any event, I argued that “racism” is not a useful concept because it’s both misleading and emotionally charged. It neither helps us get at the truth nor does it help us remedy any race-related social ills that exist. Here is my contribution to the discussion:

I agree that the term “racism,” as now used in the United States, is unhelpful. It confuses more than it clarifies.

It incites strong emotions because it’s associated with hatred and mistreatment based on race. By itself, such incitement makes the term an obstacle to rational discussion, even if it had a clear definition.

Hatred and mistreatment based on race happened in the past and they continue to happen all over the world. They are pervasive because evolution has programmed in-group / out-group bias into human nature, and racism is just one of its manifestations.

But in 2021 America, almost all whites condemn those things and try to avoid doing them, even if other groups do not. Most Americans abhor anti-black mistreatment in particular, so writers such as Ibram X. Kendi focus instead on what they consider racist policies:

“Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.”

One must also give Mr. Kendi credit for his candor about the nature of affirmative action and “diversity” programs:

“The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination.”

That was the original rationale for affirmative action back in the late 1960s, when it was sold as a temporary measure to help blacks catch up with whites. Five decades later, it’s still with us: as Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman observed, “Nothing is as permanent as a temporary government program.” High-achieving Asian students who are rejected by Harvard because of their race might take some comfort in the fact.

There are several problems with the current focus on racism:

First, the idea of “racism” as now used is unjustifiably broad. According to Mr. Kendi, it is found in any policy, institution, or custom that “produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups.” This extends the legal doctrine of disparate impact to every area of life.

However, official science (based on the pioneering work of Dr. Trofim Lysenko) now assures us that race has no biological basis, and that it is merely an arbitrary social construct.

If that is so, then to be antiracist is to oppose anything that leads to inequity between groups, whether or not the groups were previously considered racial. Anything that affects different groups differently, regardless of intent, is prima facie racist.

It implies that every identifiable group should get the same results in every area of life. However, I doubt that Mr. Kendi would endorse such a conclusion. Writers about race get paid a lot more money than clerks at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and yet those two groups — so we are told — are no more arbitrary than arbitrary racial groups, e.g., “people who think they are white,” “people who think they are black” (presumably not including Rachel Dolezal), and “people who think they are Dragonkin.”

Second, the focus on white-black relations assumes that we are still living in the year 1965 when the American population was 88 percent white, 11 percent black, and one percent “other.” At that time, focusing on white-black relations made sense.

But in 2021, the resident population of the United States is about 60 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black, and eight percent “other.”

With 2017 median income of $81,331, Asians make more money than whites (median income $68,145), whites more than Hispanics (median income $50,486), and Hispanics more than blacks (median income $40,258). In the aggregate, the same order repeats in other areas such as academic achievement and law-abiding behavior: Asians on top, then whites, then Hispanics, then blacks.

To call the system racist (in the old sense) is inaccurate: it rewards some traits and behaviors while ignoring or punishing others. It has nothing to do with race as traditionally conceived. Though they are people of color, Asians (including those whose skin is black) tend to fare better with “white privilege” than whites do.

Racism writers who say that “whiteness” is not about skin color are telling the truth. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture described whiteness in terms of traits such as self-reliance, logical thinking, work ethic, and intact families. Notably absent is anything about the traditional idea of “race.”

Instead, the list includes attitudes, institutions, and behaviors without which modern civilization could not exist. People who oppose such things are either not serious or they haven’t thought carefully about the consequences of their beliefs.

Third, preoccupation with racism harms black people by casting them as helpless victims, thereby encouraging them to blame others and discouraging them from taking control of their own lives. When combined with criticism of hard work, logical thinking, and self-reliance as “whiteness,” it both slanders black Americans and makes it more difficult for them to succeed.

Focus on racism is therefore both misleading and extremely harmful to everyone concerned.

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Three Tales from Amtrak

In the early 2000s, I worked for a year as an IT contractor at Amtrak’s headquarters in Washington DC. My experience there showed one of America’s greatest problems, as well as its solution.

The U.S. federal government created Amtrak in 1971 to consolidate private railroad companies that were failing because of mismanagement and competition from airlines. The “Am” was short for “America,” since it was 1971 and that kind of thing wasn’t yet considered hate speech.

So what did I learn at Amtrak?

First, it was an American company, so almost the entire IT staff was from India.

I was one of only three Americans in the department: two contractors and one Amtrak employee. For contractors, the Holy Grail was to be hired as an Amtrak employee. It made you almost fireproof and, if you made it to retirement, you were entitled both to Amtrak’s generous defined-benefit pension plan and to Social Security payments.

The Indian staff members were fine, though I did wonder why an American company had an IT staff almost entirely from India. The answer, of course, is that importing H1-B workers as indentured labor is cheaper than hiring unemployed Americans.

Second, I recall three experiences that might lead one to question the unalloyed benefits of so-called “diversity.”

I hasten to add that there are no bad guys in this story. It just shows the extra problems that you get by shoving together people of different cultures, languages, and expectations:

  • One project manager kept using the word “jeddo.” Eventually, I figured out that he meant “zero.” But his accent was so thick and his English so marginal that it was always hard to understand him.
  • We Americans nod our heads vertically to mean “yes” and shake them horizontally to mean “no.” The Indians did it the opposite way, nodding for “no” and shaking for “yes.” That also took a while to figure out.
  • In one meeting, I said that someone “was preaching to the choir.” That’s an American idiom, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when nobody understood it. I explained it.

Just for completeness, I’ll mention a problem I had with the other American contractor. She was very intelligent but had an odd quirk that took me a while to discern. If she was talking, she assumed that whatever was coming out of her mouth matched what she was thinking at the moment. It often didn’t. On weekends, she and I did part-time teaching to help college students improve their GRE scores, so I got to know her fairly well.

My year in Amtrak’s IT department was almost an ideal case for “diversity” enthusiasts. All of my co-workers were competent, they were all nice, and we all took our jobs seriously. But even under those conditions, diversity caused problems that would not have occurred with a more homogeneous staff.

And those are only three problems that I personally witnessed. If you multiply that by hundreds of millions, it shows the economic drag from people who can’t understand each other. In this case, we’re not even counting the cost of hiring unqualified or less-qualified people simply because they check the right boxes dictated by our state religion.

In essence, the problem’s solution is what Martin Luther King advocated: Judge people on their merits, not on the basis of irrelevant characteristics.

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Good Advice from George Washington


Until quite recently, U.S. President George Washington was considered the ideal American: honest, brave, wise, and patriotic. None of that has changed.

Washington offered some good advice about how to have a healthy society and a just government:

“We must take human nature as we find it. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals.”

(Letter to John Jay, August 15, 1786)

That insight is absent from the reasoning of many people who have good intentions. And if you observe how they argue, you can discern the thought process that misleads them:

  1. People should be a certain way.
  2. But they aren’t that way.
  3. Therefore, society should be designed as if they were that way.
  4. It will change people so they become the way they should be.

The applied version goes like this:

  1. Observe that human beings aren’t angels.
  2. Create laws, institutions, and morals that can only work if they are angels.
  3. A miracle happens!
  4. Suddenly people become angels, and everyone loves everyone else.

It’s a wonderful dream. How’s it working out for us in real life? Not very well.

In real life, humans (like many other species) divide into in-groups and out-groups. Members of each in-group identify non-members by four main factors: appearance, behavior, location, and familiarity. (See P.J.B. Slater, “Kinship and Altruism,” in Behaviour and Evolution.)

By itself, that wouldn’t be a problem. The problem arises because members of each group tend to regard non-members with indifference, suspicion, or outright hostility. It doesn’t even matter if the groups are “real.” You can make up arbitrary groups and cause the same effect. As Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson observed:

“Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when experimenters created the groups arbitrarily … participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their ‘opponents’ to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent.”

Let’s review:

  • People naturally tend to divide into groups.
  • They often dislike, distrust, and discriminate against members of other groups.
  • They recognize members of other groups by appearance, behavior, location, and familiarity.

So what’s likely to happen if you force together people who look different, act different, believe incompatible things, see each other as members of rival groups, and who have already been propagandized to hate each other?

You know the answer. But don’t try to post it on Facebook.

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Celebrating Pi Day

Today, March 14, is “Pi Day.” The date matches the first three digits of pi, 3.14. On the Nerd Calendar, Pi Day is even more important than Festivus or G.H. Hardy‘s birthday.

Pi is the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter. You probably remember it from the formula to calculate the area of a circle:

Area of a circle = Pi times the circle’s radius squared

In honor of Pi Day, let’s look at the Ancient Egyptian method to calculate the area of a circle. It’s from the Rhind Papyrus, which is one of our main sources of information about Egyptian mathematics of that era. Here’s how they did it:

  1. Measure the diameter of the circle.
  2. Draw a square with sides whose length is 8/9ths the diameter of the circle.
  3. Calculate the area of the square.
  4. Within the limits of the Ancient Egyptians’ ability to measure it, the area of the square is the same as the area of the circle.

For example, suppose that the circle’s diameter is 9 cubits. Then the square’s sides would be 8 cubits and the square’s area would be 8 x 8 = 64 square cubits.

Compare that to the modern formula for the area of a circle, which is pi (3.14159…) times the radius squared.

The radius is half of the diameter, so the radius of the same circle is 4.5 and the square of the radius is 20.25. Plugging it into the modern formula, you get:

3.14159 times 20.25 = 63.618,

very close to the Ancient Egyptian answer of 64. The Ancient Egyptian method gives a value of pi that’s about 3.16, close to the modern value of 3.14159…

Pi is an irrational number, which means you can’t write it as a ratio of whole numbers. That annoyed the Pythagoreans, Ancient Greek mathematicians who based their whole view of reality on ratios of whole numbers. They knew that irrational numbers existed, but they tried not to think about them too much.

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Why The News Is So Bad

Why is the news so bad?

I’m not talking about biased news. Yes, there’s bias, and it’s getting worse. But that’s not the issue here.

I’m also not talking about why the news is full of so many evil and horrifying things. Such things have always been around, too, but we often didn’t learn about them. For example, The New York Times covered up Stalin’s mass murder of millions of Ukrainians in the Holodomor, just as the news media have covered up other terrible crimes.

Instead, I’m talking about the quality of the news. Even taking bias into account, why is the news so unreliable?

I don’t have all the answers, but I was a newspaper reporter in Washington, DC in the 1990s. I can tell you about an experience I had that seems relevant.

Because I had done computer programming, I covered computer technology in the government.

In one case, a market research firm had published a report. It said that computer firms had complained about a new government technology standard because it allegedly favored one particular company.

It was a plausible story. Things like that happen. But as a reporter, it was my job to look for facts, not to tell readers what I thought was plausible.

The technology standard itself wasn’t much help, so I started talking to people at the computer companies. I knew some of them socially as well as professionally. Every one of them, both on the record and off the record (privately) told me the same thing: As far as they knew, nobody at their companies had made such an accusation.

So I wrote the article. Its first paragraph reported what the market research firm had said. The rest of the article recounted, with direct quotes, what people at computer companies had said — i.e., that the market research firm was wrong.

And that’s what I handed in to the editor.

Because the details matter, let’s review:

  • The market research firm said that
  • Computer companies had said that
  • The government was favoring one company.
  • People at the companies denied saying it.

The editor re-wrote my first paragraph to say that companies had, in fact, accused the government of favoring one company. She provided no evidence that it was true. The rest of my article still consisted of people at the companies saying, “no, we didn’t make that accusation.” So the first paragraph of the article directly contradicted the rest of the article.

That conflict is not rocket science. But it was apparently too subtle for the newspaper’s editor to perceive.

Two weeks later, the editor herself wrote a follow-up article. Her follow-up reported that the original article had said the government was favoring a particular company.

Hello? Any normal person should be able to see the difference between these statements:

  • A market research firm reported that companies said X.
  • Companies did in fact say X.
  • X is true.

Poor news quality results not only from bias, but also from carelessness and incompetence.

In this era of corporate media, people get promoted to editor not because they’re good journalists, but because they’re skillful corporate politicians.

Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the Pulitzer Prize was named, said that the three most important qualities of any news article were “accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy.” Unfortunately, that’s no longer a priority in the news media.


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Drug Policy: Good Is Better Than Perfect

American laws about recreational drug use are a mess.

Americans rot in prison for using or selling marijuana, which is relatively harmless. They rot in prison for selling cocaine and heroin, which aren’t harmless but harm mainly heavy users, and which are less harmful than cigarette smoking, which is legal.

Recreational drugs are immensely profitable mainly because they are illegal. The profits tend to corrupt the underpaid staffs of police and other law enforcement agencies. Those law enforcement officials who aren’t taking bribes from drug kingpins choose, instead, to take the Constitutional rights of people who engage in personal drug use.

Can We Do Better?

The correct policy response to the widespread use of psychotropic drugs is not a simple issue. The two extremes of the debate over drug policy seem biased on one hand by ideology and on the other hand by psychology:

  • Libertarianism rejects any legal limitations on personal conduct. This view endorses repeal of all laws against manufacture, sale, or use of psychotropic drugs. Because of their ideology, libertarians minimize or ignore the harm that drug use can cause to users, to other people, and to society.
  • Social conservatism seems preoccupied by sin: in particular, by the sinful conduct of other people. This view supports extensive legal prohibition, iron-fisted enforcement, and merciless punishment of those perceived as sinners. Because of their psychology, social conservatives exaggerate the immorality of drug use and the harm it can cause to users, to other people, and to society.

History can also inform our assessment. It provides arguments for two propositions, each of which leads to a different conclusion about drug policy.

All societies forbid some drugs and approve others

All societies throughout history have used psychotropic drugs. As psychiatrist Thomas Szasz documents in his classic book Ceremonial Chemistry (Syracuse University Press, 2003), societies have considered some drugs to be wicked and have persecuted their use. Other drugs, often quite similar, were considered virtuous and their use was encouraged. Often, the same drugs appeared at different times in both categories. This suggests that classifying drugs as sinful or virtuous is irrational, as is persecution of drug use.

Political resistance to drug legalization tends to confirm the role of irrationality in the debate:

Legalization has been a politically weak but intellectually powerful influence in American life for the last decade. Its criticism of the current regime has a great deal of truth in it. … Arrayed against them, but with a curiously weak representation in the academic and intellectual community, are all the forces of political power.
(MacCoun and Reuter, Drug War Heresies, location 114 of ebook. Cambridge UP, 2001)

Henry David Thoreau wrote, accurately, that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” If using drugs helps people to endure life’s difficulties with a modicum of contentment, then that argues for letting them do it unmolested. Sigmund Freud held the same view of alcohol. Perhaps the most poignant argument for letting people use psychotropic drugs was given, in another context, by the American writer Mark Twain:

Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Life was a fever-dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasure poisoned by pain … But death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind; death healed the bruised spirit and the broken heart, and gave them rest and forgetfulness; death was man’s best friend. When man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free.
(Letters from the Earth, Letter X)

People take psychotropic drugs to “set themselves free” of life’s inevitable sorrows and frustrations. One can argue that they shouldn’t have to die for it.

All societies have scapegoats

At the same time, all societies throughout history have seemed to need scapegoat groups toward which members of the majority direct the anger and frustration of their own lives. Sometimes the scapegoats are religious, sometimes ethnic, sometimes selected by particular practices such as the use of forbidden drugs.

A realistic assessment must consider the possibility that persecuting drug users acts as a social safety valve. Though it is an admitted evil, it might provide a less destructive and less expensive social catharsis than its alternatives, just as Edward Jenner discovered that deliberately infecting people with cowpox (by vaccination) protected them from the much more serious disease of smallpox.

This argues for continued drug prohibition, though the specifics – which drugs, how they are prohibited or discouraged, and what kind of penalties attend their use – make a great deal of difference.

The Libertarian View

The libertarian view has undeniable merits. Mindless drug prohibition does increase crime, both by inducing some users to commit crimes for money to buy drugs and by causing violent resolution of conflicts between people who lack access to the courts. It ruins the lives of people whose only crime is seeking a temporary, drug-induced escape from their problems. It degrades the rule of law and corrupts police.  Like earlier prohibition efforts, it disproportionately affects disfavored minorities. As Booker T. Washington wrote in 1912:

In the agitation of the liquor question incident to the attempt to pass prohibition laws in Georgia, Alabama, and other Southern States, a great deal was said about the relation of strong drink to crime, particularly crime among [forbidden word]s. This is a very important subject, because from two-thirds to three-fourths of prisoners in the penitentiaries, jails, and chain gangs in the South are [forbidden word]s.
(“[Forbidden Word] Crime and Strong Drink,” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 3:3, September 1912, pp. 384-392)

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Crime is the same. So is censorship, since we’re now forbidden even to quote words that offend woke sensibilities.

However, the libertarian view is unrealistic because it assumes that people act rationally: a quality that they display inconsistently even under ideal conditions, and which drug use makes more difficult. It also assumes an atomistic view of society in which individuals’ actions do not significantly affect others and in which they have no obligations to others beyond non-aggression.

The Social Conservative View

Apart from its obsession with sin and punishment, the social conservative view is closer to the truth than the libertarian view. Doing nothing about widespread use of psychotropic drugs is not an option. However, what we do should be informed by three considerations:

  • All drugs are not alike. Drugs differ widely in the harm they cause to users, to other people, and to society.
  • All drug users are not alike. As with alcohol, the majority of drug users are casual and occasional users. Only a minority are habitual or addicted users.
  • All legal and social sanctions are not alike. They can range from mild (such as fines or social disapproval) to draconian (such as long prison sentences or execution of drug dealers).

What Should We Do?

Our goal is to minimize the harm that drug use and illegal trafficking cause to users, to other people, and to society. However, we want to avoid remedies that in themselves cause excessive harm, such as degrading the rule of law, violating individual rights, or inflicting disproportionately severe punishments for relatively minor transgressions.

Having concluded that “Yes, we are going to do something to regulate psychotropic drug use,” we can now address the question: What should we do?

Domestic and international anti-drug efforts are not mutually exclusive. It’s quite possible to take some measures that reduce drug production in source countries, and take other measures to regulate drug use domestically.

American anti-drug efforts in other drug-producing countries are not very cost-effective, though some are less unhelpful than others. As Kleiman, Caulkins, and Hawken observe in Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2011):

Interdiction has had greater success than crop eradication, which in turn is more likely than alternative development to disrupt availability in final-market countries.

However, they conclude:

[The desire] to get to the root of drug problems by stopping drug production in source countries … is based on the illusion that the drug problem is caused by the drugs – which can be seized and destroyed – rather than by the desire for those drugs and the industry that arises to meet that desire.

It is also true that many drugs can be grown or produced domestically, so attacking their production in other countries has little effect on their availability in the United States. It is also not irrelevant that the U.S. military is already over-extended and the U.S government budget is severely strained. Overall, anti-drug efforts in other countries are a poor choice.

That leaves domestic policy as a tool to reduce drug-related harm.

Thinking Outside the Box for Domestic Policy

Most discussions of drug policy ignore one important alternative. There is a way to reduce drug-related harm that falls between the extremes of doing nothing and doing too much. It’s unfashionable, largely unknown except as a rhetorical device, and little understood in the 21st century, but was a central feature of America’s Constitutional system: Federalism.

Federalism holds that power and decision-making should be decentralized as much as is practical. It holds that if an issue can be handled adequately at the local or state level, then it is not an appropriate concern of the national government.

Some issues are clearly federal concerns: basic civil rights, international commerce, war, crimes that cross state lines, and so forth. However, for both philosophical and practical reasons, many other issues are better left to state or local jurisdictions.

The premier example of such an issue is abortion. The 1973 case of Roe v. Wade, which launched our national frenzy about the issue, is usually misunderstood. It did not legalize abortion, which was already legal in some states and illegal in others. What Roe did (on dubious Constitutional grounds) was to strike down most state laws restricting abortion. That raised what had been a state and local issue to the federal level. From the standpoint of practical politics and social harmony, that change caused most of the problems.

Abortion is a bitterly divisive issue mainly because Americans cannot reach a national consensus on the correct legal solution. However, achieving consensus at the state or local level would be much easier. California, New York, and other majority-liberal states would probably have few if any restrictions. Illinois might have some restrictions on a procedure that was generally legal. Utah might ban abortion completely. On both sides of the debate, zealots would be dissatisfied, but the national acrimony about abortion would be over.

Likewise, a big part of the American problem with illegal drugs comes from the inability to achieve a national consensus. The division of opinion is not geographically divided as much as it is for abortion, but has a geographic component. Achieving consensus would be easier at the state or local level than at the national level, where it is virtually impossible.

A first step, then, would be for the federal government to cede most drug policy choices to the states. Based on majority opinion of its citizens, each state would enact drug policies best suited to its own situation.

What States Might Wisely Do

Of course, that still leaves unanswered the question of what states should do about the use of psychotropic drugs.

We must accept the fact that no solution will be perfect. Regardless of what we do, some people will abuse drugs. Some people will be killed by them. Some minors will get them.

The French philosopher Voltaire wrote that “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” By pursuing unattainable perfect solutions and refusing to consider attainable good solutions, U.S. drug policy has done enormous harm both to America and to other countries.

In summary, here are my recommended “good solutions:”

  • Marijuana and similar drugs: Ignore them except when their use causes other problems, such as driving while intoxicated. Treat them in essentially the same way as alcoholic beverages. Prohibit their sale to minors. They have low addiction potential and are relatively (though not completely) harmless. Most of the harm comes from enforcement efforts.
  • Cocaine, heroin, and similar drugs: Sell them through government dispensaries to addicts and incorrigible heavy users who cannot or will not quit using them. Include medical monitoring. After a speedy (and fair) trial, promptly execute anyone found guilty of selling cocaine or heroin on the black market. Such drugs have high addiction potential and can cause serious physical harm. Current enforcement efforts add to the damage through violence, corruption, and impure street drugs.

Executing cocaine and heroin dealers while providing users with the drugs in a regulated way, would also preserve the function of drug sellers and users as social scapegoats. It would thereby decrease the likelihood of even more serious social and political pathology.

What the Federal Government Can Do

To the extent that it is still functioning in any positive way, the federal government can have a role in discouraging the use of psychotropic drugs. It is limited but, over the long run, it might be more effective than enforcement efforts.

The most obvious role for the federal government is to prosecute interstate crimes that involve drugs, just as it now prosecutes crimes that would otherwise be local if one of the perpetrators hadn’t crossed a state line in committing them. The federal government can also adjudicate disputes between states about drug policy related issues.

However, what might be the federal government’s most powerful role has less immediate effect. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell, two-time Nobel laureate, wrote:

Give me an adequate army, with power to provide it with more pay and better food than falls to the lot of the average man, and I will undertake, within thirty years, to make the majority of the population believe that two and two are three, that water freezes when it gets hot and boils when it gets cold, or any other nonsense that might seem to serve the interest of the state … Any verbal denial of the mystic doctrine would be made illegal, and obstinate heretics would be ‘frozen’ at the stake. No person who did not enthusiastically accept the official doctrine would be allowed to teach or have any position of power. Only the very highest officials, in their cups, would whisper to each other what rubbish it all is; then they would laugh and drink again.
(Unpopular Essays, Routledge Classics, 2009)

As demonstrated by its terror campaign about Covid-19, the federal government still has enormous power to shape American public opinion. However, in the case of drug policy, it has exercised that power either clumsily or not at all.

An example of successful propaganda is the government’s use of the entertainment industry to promote its military agenda.

Most Americans are unaware that the U.S. Department of Defense has “script approval” rights over the majority of American war movies. Consistent with the First Amendment, the government does not prohibit movies opposing U.S. military actions. However, in exchange for control over movie content, the Pentagon offers “free” use of military aircraft, locations, hardware, and other assistance. As a result, movies that portray government policies in the most positive light are cheaper and more realistic. Moviegoers never realize that they are paying to watch propaganda.

For the most part, Americans are subjected to the opposite kind of propaganda about the sale and use of psychotropic drugs. Popular movies and television shows portray drug dealers in a mostly positive light, and drug use as mostly harmless. Others portray cocaine use as trendy and fashionable, much as popular 1960s television shows featured characters who smoked cigarettes almost non-stop throughout each episode.

The propaganda pendulum has now swung to the opposite extreme for cigarettes. As a result, smoking has become less popular and smokers are seen as social lepers. Movies and television shows must get special permission to show characters smoking cigarettes.

The same thing can be done with drugs that have high risk of causing harm. Along the same lines as its military and Covid-19 propaganda, the federal government could offer incentives for entertainment providers to convey anti-drug messages. It would take time for Hollywood to accept and transmit the message, and more time for public attitudes to change. But changing public attitudes is the best, even if imperfect, thing that the federal government can try to do in drug policy.

In this world, there are no perfect solutions. But American drug policy ignores a lot of good ones.

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