Monday, December 31, 2012

The Generosity Bait and Switch

This past summer I spent some time in Germany, and one of the people I met through my host family was a middle–aged guy named Tommy. Tommy was a ton of fun to be around. He was energetic, genuinely friendly, and a great conversationalist: bright and funny with impeccable English. He also shared my interest in politics, and we got to talking about them one night at a bar in Hamburg. The topic on this particular night was how the European welfare programs are going bankrupt. Tommy asked me why I thought this was, and I answered that the population was aging: since Europeans are having fewer children and living longer, there are more retirees receiving senior benefits and fewer workers paying taxes to support them. He agreed this was a major problem, but soon he began lamenting another cause.

Tommy felt that many people were irresponsibly having children they could not afford to raise. He complained about how much more likely these kids were to be uneducated, go unemployed, or commit crimes due to the circumstances in which they grew up. I understood those concerns, and sympathized with how much harder life is for those kids. He went on to say how unfair it was that everybody else in the country be made to pay for those poor decisions through things like welfare and unemployment benefits and higher crime rates. Again I agreed – it really is unfair that responsible people be forced to pay for the irresponsible decisions of total strangers. But when he suggested a way to address this problem, I recoiled. Tommy felt that if you wanted to have a child, you should first have to demonstrate an ability to support that child to some sort of official; this official would look at certain factors like your income, age, residence, education level, or future job prospects before giving you clearance to proceed.

I blinked, and then paused for a few seconds. There were so many things wrong with this I didn’t even know where to begin. Now, as I said, Tommy was a really nice guy, and I didn’t want to spoil our evening or make a scene; bars are rarely the forum for productive political debate anyway. He’s entitled to his opinion, and I wouldn’t convince him otherwise, so I just guided the conversation elsewhere. Eventually we left for home, and I went to bed. But before I could fall asleep, I found myself just staring at the ceiling, getting angrier and angrier at the idea Tommy had proposed a few hours before.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, because this mindset and its implications are far more widespread than I’d like to believe. In China, of course, the infamous one-child policy prohibits parents from having more than one son regardless of economic status. And even in this country, liberals have been complaining about the environmental impact of overpopulation for decades. Large families are criticized for selfishly consuming “more than their share” of the world’s resources. Additionally, an inability to financially support a child has long been cited as sufficient moral justification for abortion, and many liberals cite a decrease in crime and poverty as primary social benefits of Roe vs. Wade (although I’m pro-choice, this argument has never been compelling to me: a fetus should have the same rights whether its mother is wealthy or impoverished).

To be clear, the specific policy Tommy advocated is not yet fully embraced by most on the American left. But it is true that most liberals are comfortable with government regulating how families may raise their children on issues like education, seat belts, spanking, sex-ed, and teenaged birth control,. And if the state can decide how you raise them, is it really that much of a stretch to imagine it deciding whether you get to raise them at all? It already bans riding a motorcycle without a helmet, or choosing not to buy health insurance, with the justification that such decisions risk imposing costs on taxpayers. If the decision to have a child carries the same risk, couldn’t it be restricted as well? Already, parents seeking permission to home school their kids must prove to the Department of Education that they have enough time, resources and expertise to do so effectively. Isn’t the natural next step in that progression to make parents demonstrate they have the time, resources, and expertise to raise children in the first place? These arguments haven’t reached the US Congress yet, but the collectivist worldview and rhetorical framework that justify them certainly have. As the entitlement programs so beloved by the left become more and more unsustainable, the temptation to actually implement such ideas will undoubtedly increase.

But any liberals who succumb to that temptation will be traitors to the very groups they promise to help. For decades, the Democratic Party has marketed itself as the ones who will stick up for the little guy, nobly defending the rights of the weak from the powerful interests that would oppress them. They have lured millions of impoverished voters year after year by promising them everything from the moon and back: welfare checks, minimum wages, protections from foreign competition, free healthcare, a college education, social security, you name it. To then turn around and use those same promises as justification to take away those people’s most sacred human rights would be the biggest bait and switch ever perpetrated on the American people. How dare liberals in any country present themselves as the champions of the working man, the heroes of the poor, and then turn around and tell them they’re not allowed to start a family? How condescending, how demeaning is it, for the government to tell people that you’re so stupid, and so uneducated, so inept, so incapable of parenthood that you shouldn’t even be allowed to breed?

The poor aren’t the only group betrayed by such a proposal. What about women? The only three ways this prospective law could be enforced are by requiring abstinence, requiring birth control, or requiring abortion. Aren’t Democrats supposed to be the party of “woman’s body, woman’s choice?” What happened to getting the government out of the bedroom?

If lawmakers are truly concerned that the irresponsible decisions of some are imposing unfair costs on others, they can place conditions on the receipt of government benefits. For example, parents who are already receiving welfare might be ineligible for additional TANF payments if they choose to have more children. This would prevent some parents from imposing costs on others, and I’m perfectly fine with that. It’s okay to tell people “We’ve run out of money, so we can’t afford to pay for your kids anymore.” It’s just not okay to tell them “We’ve run out of money, so you can’t have kids anymore.” Unfortunately, most liberals would shudder at the mere thought of restricting the eligibility for benefits. Why is that? Why might someone prefer to ban a child’s birth than to simply not give its parents a handout?

The root moral issue here is the question of whether a life of suffering is worth living. I certainly cannot know from experience, but my answer is still yes. I would choose to live in squalid poverty before I chose to end my life. When I see a starving African boy clinging to life in the gravest conditions imaginable, I feel his plight is a tragic and avoidable occurrence – but his existence as a person is still a blessing. I view even the worst case scenario of that child’s brief time here on earth as a net positive, both for him and for those who have known him. The intrinsic value of a human being cannot be tied to their prospects for wealth or longevity.

But many people disagree with me. Many believe that living in poverty is worse than not living at all. Therefore, they feel it is better that a child never be born than it is for one to live a life in which their standard of living cannot be ensured by the state. Those who hold this opinion reject making the receipt of government handouts conditional, because they know that some who do not meet those conditions would choose to have children anyway. They rightfully fear that those children may grow up without access to healthcare, a college education, a loving family, a healthy community, or three nutritious meals a day. They fear that without access to the government programs designed to mitigate such dangers, these children may live poorer, unhappier, and shorter lives than others. But because they prefer a society that lacks poor, unhappy and short-lived people, some of them then feel an inclination to prevent such people from ever having existed. In what they must twistedly view as mercy, they somehow transfer their sympathy for the plight of the poor into a wish that the poor had never been born. And because their statist worldview lacks a distinction between their personal preferences and their desired laws, they can justify banning couples from having children the state is unable to afford.

If you are one of these people, I have a message for you. Initially, I’d planned to ask you what warped moral framework views preventing a person’s existence as a benevolent favor to that person? But then I realized I don’t really care how you personally justify that opinion, so I thought of a better question. It’s the same question I should have asked Tommy that night in Hamburg:

Who the fuck do you think you are? Who died and made you God, that you get to decide under what conditions it is permissible for another human life to be brought into this world? What moral authority do you have to make that decision for everyone else? Why does your opinion about what would save government money give you the right to forcibly prevent women from having children? Since when is my right to procreate superseded by your desire for a welfare check? By what stretch of the imagination do you feel you have or ought to have the power to tell anyone if, when, and how they’re allowed to start a family? When did population control become a just, constitutional or conscionable objective of American government?

This is not fucking China. We do not do eugenics here. And I don’t have to be a citizen to know that they shouldn’t do it in Germany either.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Oh yeah, and it’s unconstitutional too...

In my recent posts on marijuana legalization, got so lost in all the pragmatic reasons why prohibition is bad that I forgot the legalistic one: it’s unconstitutional at the federal level. The reason alcohol prohibition required the 18th amendment (and that its repeal required the 21st) was because it was well understood at the time that congress does not have the power to prohibit a product on its own. Where in the constitution is banning drugs of any kind an enumerated power? Well, the Controlled Substances Act does it anyway. There is clearly no distinction between banning a liquid drug and banning a plant drug, so the only thing prohibitionists can say to defend its constitutionality is that the constitution is a “living document” and our interpretation of its meaning has changed since the 1920’s. This, as I’ve explained in the past, is bullshit. Banning private drug possession or consumption in the privacy of one’s own home is not a regulation of interstate commerce. Protecting people from themselves is not necessary and proper for the implementation of any of the other enumerated powers. That it can theoretically enhance the general welfare is insufficient, as it must do so without stepping beyond the bounds of the powers expressly granted to the government. So you can add increased legitimacy to the list of benefits I cited before.

This is your Brain on Prohibition: Debunking the counterarguments to Marijuana Legalization

Many policy questions illustrate a perceived tradeoff between liberty and security. On issues like drone strikes or the TSA, libertarians like me are accustomed to making the case that liberty should be given priority. Other times, pundits try to paint a contrast between liberty and prosperity; whether its stimulus spending, farm subsidies, crony capitalism or labor protectionism, we’re used to fighting these battles too. But when almost every informed observer agrees that a policy measure would advance all three of these ideals at once, making the case for that measure seems almost too easy. How could anyone oppose such an obviously beneficial reform?
Almost everyone today recognizes that the prohibition of alcohol was one of the most abysmal policy failures in American history. It created a vicious black market that killed thousands of people, made consumption more dangerous by eliminating the quality controls of an open market, and locked peaceful people in jail alongside violent criminals. It cost millions of dollars in government expenditures, and forfeited millions more in tax revenue. It killed thousands of jobs, enabled corruption, and restricted peoples’ natural freedoms to decide what to put in their own bodies, all while failing to make any substantial dent in consumption (or it’s negative public health effects). Ending this failed experiment in oppression saved money, time, and lives while enhancing freedom and decreasing crime.
Yet while everyone agrees alcohol prohibition had these effects, not everyone recognizes that the war on drugs has done the same thing on a far larger scale, for a far longer period of time. This is primarily due to the propagation misleading, sometimes blatantly false information about the consequences of drug use, while the far more devastating consequences of prohibition itself are ignored and glossed over. And while this is true for all drugs, nowhere is this misinformation more widespread than marijuana. In this post I’d like to dispel seven of these myths.

Bad Prohibitionist Argument #1: Marijuana is addictive.
Those who argue that marijuana is “addictive” are referring to the clinical, scientific definition of dependency. But clinical dependency is a highly watered down version of what most people think of when they hear the term “drug addiction”. By the clinical definition, about 10% of marijuana users have a “psychiatric dependency", meaning they feel cravings for the drug. However, unlike the cravings for other drugs, these cravings can be resisted by simple willpower. By that same definition, people can also become dependent on caffeine: heavy coffee drinkers often experience “withdrawal” symptoms of headache, fatigue, anxiety, irritability, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, etc. Similarly, heavy pot smokers might get a stronger hankering for another bong hit than people who never light up. But this is very different from “physical addiction”, which is the actually dangerous kind you get from other street drugs. When most people hear the term “drug addict”, they think of the desperate, pale, jittery, strung-out people who are so powerless before their dependency that they’re willing to do anything, from theft to murder, just to get their fix. Drugs like meth and heroin can do this to you. Marijuana certainly cannot. Considering studies have placed marijuana’s dependency rates lower than legal drugs like alcohol, tobacco and even caffeine, this rare and mild psychiatric attraction doesn’t seem like a good reason to make marijuana illegal.

Bad Prohibitionist Argument #2: Legalizing marijuana makes it accessible to kids.
You’ve all probably heard this argument before. “What about the kids?” a concerned conservative mother might ask. “I sure don’t want my son exposed to this at school. Drugs are a bad influence!”
The truth is that legalization makes it harder for kids to get marijuana, not easier. Why? Let’s compare it to another drug that’s legal for adults but illegal for children (just as legalization advocates say marijuana should be): alcohol. Surveys given to high-school children found they have much more access to marijuana than they do to alcohol because they don’t need ID to purchase the former. Almost everyone knows the local dealer is, and if they don’t they can probably find out by asking the right people (or asking a friend who uses where he gets his pot). Other surveys found that of 17 cited reasons why teenagers chose not to do pot, “too expensive” was third from the bottom and “wasn’t able to get any” was dead last. If drug vendors are licensed professionals instead of the gang member, it’s much easier to make those vendors comply with regulations about the age of their customers. Legalizing marijuana allows us to regulate the point of sale, making it one of the best ways to keep pot out of kids’ hands.

Bad Prohibitionist Arugment #3: Marijuana is a gateway drug.
Let’s forget for the moment that this is simply not borne out in the data: even most prohibitionists agree that “Most people who use marijuana will stop after trying it once or twice. And most of the rest will not become addicted and not use other drugs.” But even if it were true, the possibility of one thing leading to an illegal other thing does not make it okay to ban the first thing. Drinking might lead to DUI; driving might lead to speeding; using the internet might lead to pirating TV shows. But each of these activities is legal, because they can also be (and usually are) conducted safely and responsibly. Marijuana is no different.

Bad Prohibitionist Argument #4: “Legalizing marijuana would impose vast ‘social costs’ that outweigh its fiscal benefits.”
Edwin Meese III and Charles Stinson of the Heritage Foundation claim that alcohol and tobacco are net negatives for the economy, because they impose more costs on the government than they bring in from consumption revenue. They use this argument to suggest that the legalization of marijuana would cost us more than we’d gain. They write:
“tobacco does not carry its economic weight. In 2007, the government collected $25 billion in tobacco taxes but spent more than $200 billion per year to cover health and other tobacco-related costs. It is the same with alcohol: In 2007, governments collected $14 billion in alcohol taxes but spent $185 billion to cover health, crime, and other alcohol-related costs”
“today, society receives about $1 in alcohol and tobacco tax revenue for every $10 lost on the social costs of those two legal drugs. Increased drug use means increased costs.”
They are correct that legalizing marijuana would lower its price and probably increase its use, but they are wrong that this makes prohibition an economically preferable policy.
First, consider only the tax revenue gained from one specific tax, without considering the broader benefits to the economy on the whole. Alcohol and tobacco are massive industries which produce thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue – revenue taxable under the income tax, not just the consumption taxes on their products. A legal marijuana industry would grow the economy in the same manner. Banning these industries drives them underground, where none of the revenue is taxable.
Second, marijuana is far safer than either of those two drugs, so it wouldn’t impose nearly the same costs. Alcohol causes thousands of deaths and hospitalizations a year, from DUI’s to domestic violence to alcohol poisoning. Tobacco causes thousands more from lung cancer and a whole host of other negative health side effects. Marijuana poses far fewer health risks. But marijuana is both less addictive and less damaging to one’s body overall than either tobacco or alcohol. As such it wouldn’t make taxpayers pick up the tab for nearly so many hospital visits or healthcare costs.
Third, they ignore the direct fiscal costs of the status quo. Government spends billions on tracking down, prosecuting and incarcerating drug criminals. These criminals are in turn less employable and less productive after getting out of jail, fueling poverty and harming the economy overall. Legalizing marijuana saves money on all of these costs.
Fourth, even if prohibition did help the economy, we must be clear about what, specifically, is hurting the economy under legalization. Drug use doesn’t impose a cost on anybody but the user unless government decides otherwise. The fiscal “costs” of drug use only exist because the government has decided to create them by offering to cover people’s ER visits, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, etc. These costs were not imposed by the individuals exercising their freedoms, nor are they justification to curtail those freedoms. As I said in yesterday’s post, we cannot ignore the middle-man; whenever the taxpayer is made to pay for anything, it’s always the government’s fault.

Bad Prohibitionist Argument #5: “The costs of enforcing marijuana regulations would increase law enforcement costs due to increased use.”
Sabet’s article defends this claim by observing that “(legal) alcohol leads to more arrests every year than do all illegal drugs combined. Driving while drunk, liquor law violation, and public drunkenness result in over 2.5 million alcohol-related arrests every year. That isn’t to say that current drug policies aren’t also costly to the criminal justice system. They are. But that is precisely why we need smarter enforcement policies — not legalization, which would very likely compound the current costs.”
But this is also a ridiculous argument, for two reasons. First, the statistic cited to defend it ignores the scope of the drugs it compares. Alcohol is a more traditional and far more widely used drug than marijuana or any other recreational drug, regardless of its legal status. There is no evidence to suggest that legalizing marijuana would increase its use so much that the number of pot users would match the number of alcohol users, and there is also no evidence that a given marijuana user is equally as likely to commit crimes (besides, of course, the status quo crime of having used marijuana!) as a given alcohol user. Comparing absolute arrest totals between legal and illegal drug users at a given time is a meaningless statistic.
What makes much more sense is to compare the effect of prohibition on arrest totals and law enforcement costs within the same drug. And when you consider the per capita costs of alcohol during prohibition vs. what they are today, they have got to be far lower today. Alcohol prohibition is estimated to have cost the government $11 billion, without significantly reducing consumption (or drunk driving, or underage drinking, or all the other social side effects of alcohol). This also makes intuitive sense, because the regulations Sabet worries would be expensive are already being enforced under prohibition. Yes, even if marijuana were legalized, some users might need to be arrested for things like driving high or underage smoking. Yes, it would cost money to enforce those regulations. But those things are already illegal! They’re already costing law enforcement money.  For Sabet’s claim to make any sense, the increase in people arrested for those things thanks to legalization must exceed the 800,000 people arrested annually for marijuana possession or trafficking – which, considering the aforementioned numbers, is highly unlikely.
Misleading arguments like the two above cannot change the truth: forcibly preventing people from doing relatively harmless things is costly and ineffective.

Bad Prohibitionist Argument #6: “Legalization wouldn’t actually decrease crime.”
Sabet continues:
“there is no guarantee that marijuana legalization would significantly diminish the underground market for marijuana. In a legal market, where marijuana is taxed, the well-established illegal drug trade has every incentive to remain. Today’s thriving underground market for tobacco is a good example of this. The drug trade is so profitable that even undercutting the legal (taxed) market price would leave cartels with a handsome profit.”
How somebody can doubt that the underground market for marijuana would “significantly diminish” in the face of a legal corporate competitor is beyond me. In the status quo, the drug trade is only “so profitable” because the cartels are shielded from competition by prohibition’s artificial restriction of supply. Banning an entire industry gives those willing to break the law a monopoly on that industry, enabling them to sell that product at a lucrative markup. If pot were legal, those supply restrictions wouldn’t exist, and the monopoly would be gone. There is unanimous consensus among economists that the resulting competition would make the price (and therefore, profitability) of marijuana plummet – far more than any tax could possibly make up for. There is no “handsome profit” for cartels in competing with a corporation that doesn’t need to spend money on such overhead as underground tunneling, bribes, blackmail, law enforcement evasion, henchman, weapons, and ammunition. And even if there were, it’d certainly be much less profitable for cartels than it is today.
The analogy to the tobacco industry is simply absurd. Yes, some people try to avoid the tobacco tax by selling it under the table, or buying in bulk and then selling packs individually at a tax-free price. But you know what they’re not doing? Using machine guns to kill policemen and rival gang members over tobacco turf. There are no “tobacco cartels”, because once something is legal, and corporations can mass produce it efficiently, the people who want it don’t need to turn to gun-toting strongmen in order to get it. Comparing these two “underground markets” as if they’re analogous is an insult to the millions of people unjustly killed or imprisoned, and the millions of families and thousands of communities, torn apart by the war on drugs.
Sabet also worries that “Homeowners growing pot in their backyards will become targets for pot thieves and attendant crime.”
Oh, so kind of like they are now? What Sabet forgets is that this already happens all the time, because there is already a thriving group of private marijuana growers. What he also forgets is that in a legal market, these growers would have an avenue of legal recourse if their property is stolen, instead of resorting to their own devices. And what he really forgets is that after legalization, these people will only have to hide their cannabis plants from civilian thieves, rather than from both civilian and government thieves. In the first situation, they could potentially lose their homegrown pot. In the second, they lose their pot, their freedom, their money, their chances at a good job, years of their life, etc. Funny way of protecting them, don’t you think?

Bad Prohibitionist Argument #7: “Marijuana has such detrimental health effects that we need to protect people from themselves.”
As a libertarian, this argument makes my blood boil no matter what context it’s used in. The general idea that government should ever protect people from themselves is belittling to me. It is directly antithetical to individual liberty. And the specific idea that locking drug users in jail for decades and then saddling them with a felony record for the rest of their lives is somehow done for their benefit is outrageous bullshit – period, end of discussion.
But even if it weren’t just wrong on face, when it comes to marijuana, the truth is that there’s simply not much to protect people from in the first place. The minimal side effects of marijuana align much more closely with the warning label on a bottle of medicine than they do with the devastating, deadly, effects of many harder drugs. Reason magazine asserts that “decades of scientific research [show] that marijuana is relatively safer than both alcohol and harder drugs (including many prescription pills).” The highest estimates put the total number of deaths in which marijuana was a factor between 1999 and 2007 at a mere 26 deaths. Compare that to the number of deaths from alcohol poisoning, DUI, or crime that alcohol played a role in over that span! This evidence confirms our intuition that marijuana is used less often and in different settings than alcohol, or else has a less inhibitory effect on motor function.
Other studies cite decreased IQ or lower performance on tests resulting from marijuana use among teens with developing brains. The first problem with that is that correlation does not equal causation; perhaps those with bad test scores or low IQ’s are simply more likely to have tried marijuana for other reasons. The second problem is that, as I said earlier, teenagers would be less able to acquire pot in a legally regulated market than they are today. No similar effects have been found among those who began using marijuana as adults (at least not in studies that I know of).
Whether marijuana smoke contributes to cardiovascular problems, respiratory problems or lung cancer is still debated in the medical community, but all agree that it contributes far less to these things than does tar-filled tobacco smoke.  And even if these reports are true, who cares? Why is that your business? How many times have you heard a new study come out that says “____ food may elevate the risk of _____ health problem”? Probably hundreds. From egg yolks to high fructose corn syrup to cholesterol, there are lots of unhealthy things in this world, and many other contested health effects which scientists dither back and forth about. None of that is reason to ban those things. Whether it’s pot, alcohol, eating a big mac, or skateboarding without a helmet, if people believe these activities will enhance their lives they should be free to do as they choose.
Arguments like these help validate entrenched traditional mindsets, but they don’t stand up to closer inspection. Unfortunately, they are seldom inspected, because the victims of such ideas are disenfranchised. As Matt Welch of Reason puts it, “No politician ever lost an election by alienating the ex-con vote (in no small part because in a dozen states, ex-felons who have completed parole are still permanently barred from voting). It is no accident that the people most likely to languish behind bars—poor minorities, sex offenders, illegal immigrants—tend to be among the most reviled groups in American society.”
Eventually, government nannies will run out of excuses, and will be forced to confront the fear and intolerance that drives their policies. The subconscious thought process that truly motivates a prohibitionist reads something like this: “I think drugs are bad, and I’d prefer that those who use them not be around. So I’m more comfortable if we use the force of law to impose that preference on society – so long as nobody else imposes their preferences on me.” The sooner America discards this backwards and oppressive mindset, the better.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Mandatory Insurance for Concealed Carry Participants?

The other day I was in a gun control debate on Facebook when a friend suggested an interesting proposal I hadn’t heard before. This person was fine with private gun ownership in the confines of one’s own home, but felt that people who tried to use their guns in self-defense in public spaces were unacceptably dangerous, both to the taxpayer and to the others around them. Therefore, he wanted to require anyone seeking a concealed carry permit to have their gun insured, in much the same way drivers are forced to insure their car. The pricing for these insurance plans could be determined by what he called the “free market,” such that if the risks of incurring liabilities were found to be unacceptably high by the insurance companies, insuring a weapon would become too pricy for the average person to afford. These prices might also vary by the prospective carrier’s location, training, and mental health as determined by the company, theoretically making it harder for untrained or unstable people living in violent areas to get guns. I disagreed with this idea. Here was my response:

One justification for your proposal is that taxpayers are currently being saddled with "the carnage and destruction of property incurred by gun usage." I see three problems with this.

1. There are two types of gun users in the world: those who intend to kill innocent people, and those who don't. Which group would a mandatory insurance policy save taxpayers money on? The first group isn't going to buy the insurance anyway, because if they gave a crap about the law, they wouldn’t be murdering people in the first place. And the second group isn't really imposing costs on anybody, at least not that you've shown.

2. The only way taxpayers can be on the hook is if legislators have decided to place them on the hook. The costs taxpayers pay to cover certain expenses were not imposed by the individuals whose actions created those expenses originally. Indeed, those actions went on long before taxpayers ever picked up the tab. Rather, the cost was imposed by the lawmakers who decided government ought to pay for those things at taxpayer expense. Those taxpayer costs are therefore not the direct result of anyone exercising any freedom, and nor are they justification to curtail those freedoms. We cannot ignore the middle-man; whenever the taxpayer is made to pay for anything, it’s always the government’s fault.

3. How much can taxpayers really be on the hook in the first place? As far as I know there aren't any laws that gunshot victims must be financially compensated by the state for their wounds/emotional turmoil. Do you mean mandatory ER visits from those victims who don't have health insurance? That's a puny cost when you narrow down all ER visits to just those who are from guns, and then to just those gun victims who are uninsured. Were you referring to courtroom costs? If so, wouldn't that same standard apply to every law that could potentially be broken? We can't preemptively charge people for legal fees they probably won't incur!

Next, you asked me to imagine a case in which a well-intentioned gunman trying to stop the bad guy with his concealed weapon was killed by the bad-guy in the attempt. That situation would be tragic, but still not very informative on the overall effectiveness of the strategy. Obviously, anyone deciding to enter a gunfight does so knowing they may be killed, but perhaps those same people (or others in their place) would have been killed anyway had they not attempted to disarm, delay or kill the attacker. You've also suggested that anyone who whips out a gun in such a situation risks being confused as the bad guy by police, thereby endangering himself even further. While that's true, to me that just further proves that people should understand they are defending themselves at their own risk. Banning concealed carry for these individuals sake amounts to protecting them from themselves, which is tough to justify. What seems more relevant from a legal perspective is, does concealed carry by good, law-abiding people actually place other good guys, besides the carrier, in significantly greater danger than they were previously? Statistically, I don't think there's any evidence of that. Can you cite any situations in which other people, besides the carrying-good-guy, were killed accidentally? And even if so, how do we know that those same people wouldn't have eventually been killed by the bad-guy on a shooting spree anyway?

You've expressed your personal preference that if you were in the vicinity of a madman with a gun with nowhere to escape, you'd prefer to just wait for the police to arrive, and wouldn't want anyone else to whip out a gun to try and stop him. That's fine, but personally I know I'd prefer the exact opposite. In high school we did an "intruder drill" twice a year, in which they ordered everyone to just cluster in the corner crouching down with the lights off to make it seem like nobody was there. I distinctly remember thinking to myself during these drills, which often lasted for a half-hour, "wow, if this ever happens in real life, we're screwed. As soon as the gunman enters the classroom, we're sitting ducks all in a row, just waiting to die." I know I would feel much more secure in that situation if the teacher had a gun locked in a safe, and could assume a defensive position by the door. And if I knew there was a principal or security guard on the prowl in the hallway to confront, stop or at least delay and distract the gunman, I don't see how that would place me in any additional danger. Nevertheless, I do understand your concerns; it’s perfectly fine that we have a disagreement in preferences.

What isn’t fine is for either of us to force our preferences on the other. You say we “live in a land of laws,” and ask why people of my opinion "get to decide" those laws for everyone else. That’s an excellent question: why does my preference trump yours? The answer is that you're the one asking the government to wield coercive force restricting my liberty. Your proposal is to ban something: in this case, the activity of carrying an uninsured gun. Enforcing that ban means punishing those who carry an uninsured gun under the force of law. That force is only justifiable if the activity being banned imposes costs on other people. In this case, that means the act of carrying a weapon itself has to jeopardize the rights of others, besides the carrier. Aside from a few hypothetical situations, you've not demonstrated any evidence that that's the case.

I, on the other hand, merely want the government to leave people alone, which is what happens in a state of nature in the absence of government on this issue. That proposal requires a much lower burden of proof, because inaction doesn’t need to be legitimate. Wielding force under governing authority does, and it can only be legitimate if there is a moral consensus that the events it’s designed to prevent pose a graver threat than the force itself. Constitutionally repealing the right to bear (as opposed to merely the right to store) arms would require a 2/3 majority of congress/the state legislatures, and nothing remotely near that consensus exists. Just because we “live in a land of laws” does not mean those laws get to decide everything I can or cannot do.

You claim that this is okay on private property, but that "in public places you assume a certain level of risk that society mitigates by having and paying for law enforcement." Well, yes, but that's not the only way our society mitigates it. The modern purpose of the second amendment is that we don't need to trust our lives exclusively in the hands of policemen, because even the most adept and timely police force in the world cannot possibly defend us from every threat. We are guaranteed the ability to defend ourselves as a last resort - even if others, or a majority of others, would rather see us defenseless. With your same logic, you could just as easily say that people like you, who are uncomfortable with this privilege, assume a certain level of risk when you walk outside. Your preferences may influence your behavior in how you personally accommodate for that perceived risk - perhaps by avoiding shopping malls or gun shows - but they don't change my rights. I personally don't plan on exercising that right because I have minimal likelihood of being attacked and feel no need for a gun. But those in the crime ridden ghettos of America, where the police oftentimes don't fully investigate to attacks or even respond to them in a timely manner, must particularly appreciate that freedom. So do many women, for which guns are the only equalizer of physical strength.

If you can objectively prove that the freedom of law abiding people to carry a concealed firearm significantly jeopardizes the rights of others, and that it costs more lives than it saves, I'll support your proposal. Until then, the burden of justifying such a policy is on you.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Anger is Not an Argument: My Thoughts on Gun Control

There’s a saying in American politics that a savvy politician will “never let a good crisis go to waste.” In times of disaster, emotions run high, and with the right rhetoric it’s easy to turn these emotions into impassioned support for a political cause. Republicans used 9/11 to justify two wars, a massive new Department of Homeland Security, the TSA and mammoth increases in defense spending. Democrats used Hurricane Katrina to criticize President Bush and catapult to huge electoral gains in 2006. Republicans tried to do the same thing with the Benghazi incident a few months ago. And last week, we saw gun control advocates employ the same strategy after the unspeakable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Each time a mass shooting occurs in a public space, the debate over gun control laws in America reopens. Each time, gun control proponents try to use the new tragedy as leverage in the debate, and each time they are rebuffed by an American public that has repeatedly demonstrated they want nothing to do with such policies. Increased traditional media coverage, combined with social media’s unique ability to supply instantaneous reactions from hundreds of people at once, only magnifies this redundant drama. So when the news broke about last week’s tragedy, I wasn't surprised to see the same story play out on my Facebook news feed.

The brutal death of innocent young children is even more heart-wrenching than the death of adults, so much so that it made the President cry during his prepared statements on the tragedy. Whether those tears were real or not is up for interpretation (some commentators have expressed curiosity about whether he sheds as many tears for the hundreds of innocent children his drone strikes have killed in the Middle East, but that’s another matter). Either way, it appears gun control advocates were hoping this latest tragedy would be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and once again began capitalizing on the massacre.

This is ironic because the people who drum up fear about guns are the exact same people who blame Republicans for “fear mongering” on other issues. When it comes to ridiculous, unsubstantiated conservative predictions that Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya, or that terrorists are lurking around every corner, or that marijuana is an addictive drug that will melt your brain like an egg in a frying pan, they are right to do so. It is wrong for conservatives to use public fear about terrorism, foreigners, or drugs as a replacement for rational, objective arguments on those matters. But what Democrats do on gun control is the exact same thing.

We are all saddened by the events in Sandy Hook. We are all angered by these events. But anger is not an argument, and allowing it to shape policy is what’s most likely to make those events recur. Basing policy proposals off of emotional knee-jerk reactions instead of facts and logic is a recipe for disaster, because such policies have all sorts of unintended consequences that our emotions had not accounted for.

Like prostitution, dangerous drugs, and unhealthy food, guns can often have terrible consequences. And like those things, guns are either illegal or highly restricted in many parts of the world. The Americans who feel the United States should be among those places could never imagine wanting or needing a gun of their own, just like many people would never want to engage in prostitution, use drugs, or eat fast food. Each time these people hear news of another shooting it fuels their perception that the Second Amendment brings nothing but death, violence and heartache. There is a pervasive belief that banning or restricting guns is equivalent to limiting these things.

Unfortunately, those beliefs rely upon a misplaced faith in the effectiveness of state or federal gun-control policies at combating these crimes. Banning prostitution does not make it go away. Banning certain foods does little to make Americans healthier. Banning drugs does little to reduce drug use. And as statistics repeatedly show, banning guns does little to reduce gun violence in the United States.

Perhaps if guns had been banned and confiscated very early on in American history such that there were now zero-net guns in the entire country, we'd have less gun violence today. But didn’t happen, and as a result there are 300 million guns in the country – almost as many guns as there are people. 42% of Americas own at least one. The simple truth is that even the most severe gun control measure imaginable – a constitutional amendment banning them outright and subsequent legislation attempting to confiscate all of them – could not get nearly all of them out of the country. Such a measure would merely push the market for these guns underground, where they would be completely unregulated and anyone could get them. Studies have shown that it’s much easier for kids today to get marijuana from their high school dealer than it is for them to get alcohol from a store that checks ID. In the same way, it’d be much easier for dangerous criminals to buy unregulated, unlicensed black market guns than it would be for them to pass the background checks necessary to buy one legally today.

This is why comparisons to nations like Japan, which constitutionally banned guns from the outset, don’t work. Nor do comparisons to Britain, Australia, or most other countries. It is true, as gun-control advocates love to point out, that these countries both have fewer guns and much less gun crime; Britain and Japan have less than 100 gun deaths every year, while the US has about 12,000. But these comparisons don’t tell the whole story, because correlation does not equal causation. First, the USA has a much larger population overall than those countries, so the differences in absolute totals are more drastic than the differences in crime ratios. And as it relates to ratios, the US has higher rates in general (gun related or not) than any other country. When you remove the US from the picture as an outlier, the nations with strict gun control laws do not have significantly lower gun crime than the nations with relatively easy access to guns (like Switzerland and Israel). This suggests the culprit in the US may lie in cultural (are Americans more desensitized to violence?) socioeconomic (perhaps we have more poverty, and thus more desperation and crime), or legal differences (the war on drugs, mass incarceration creating a cycle of crime, etc.).

Besides, the reasons why gun violence is more abundant here than it is there say nothing about the effectiveness of certain policies at curtailing it. Even if we assumed the guns themselves were the driving cause behind increased gun crime, several critical differences exist between the US and more restrictive nations which demonstrate that the effectiveness of their policies may not be matched if they were tried here. For one thing, Britain, Japan and Australia are all islands, making smuggling illegal weapons into the country much more difficult than it is in a nation with 7,000 miles of territorial borders. Secondly, at no point in Britain or Japan’s histories were their people as thoroughly armed as the US populace currently is, meaning their relative success in getting weapons off the street does not attest to its chances of success here. And finally, Americans are much more rebellious and distrustful of government, and would not hand over their weapons so willingly as would nations like Japan, who are relatively submissive to government authority. Good luck trying to confiscate 300 million guns from ornery NRA members.

Within the US, there is certainly no association between states with more stringent gun control laws and lower crime rates, if anything an inverse relationship. As of 2000, the 31 states that had "shall issue" laws allowing private citizens to carry concealed weapons had, on average, a 24 percent lower violent crime rate, a 19 percent lower murder rate and a 39 percent lower robbery rate than states that forbade concealed weapons. In fact, the nine states with the lowest violent crime rates are all right-to-carry states. The number of privately owned guns is increasing by about 4 million a year, and the right to legally carry weapons has been expanding over the last two decades, yet over that time we have seen a 41 percent decline in violent crime rates. Since the 2004 expiration of the "assault weapon" ban, murder rates are down 15 percent. The type of gun doesn't matter. The size of the magazine doesn’t matter. What does matter is that while anyone who is deranged enough to go on a shooting spree will not be deterred by any law telling them what they can and cannot own.

What they might be deterred by is another gun. According to self-reported survey data, Dr. Gary Kleck of Florida State University found that guns are used for self-defense in this country over 2 million times a year (as of 1993). 13 prior studies had placed the figures between 800,000 and 2.5 million a year, and even the most conservative studies cited by gun-control advocates place the figure in the hundreds of thousands. Compared to 30,000 gun deaths a year (a figure which includes 18,0000 suicides and 1,000 accidents), this suggests guns play an important role in protecting people’s lives and property in the aggregate. Nor does this mean violence is necessary to end violence, as in over 80% of these DGU (defensive gun use) incidents, no shots needed to be fired. Merely brandishing the weapon was enough to scare the assailant away.

These statistics testify to the effectiveness of self-defense. But at a more fundamental level, what really matters is the principle behind it. Any nation which prides itself on the freedom of individuals to provide for themselves and their families should extend that freedom to include the provision of security. The 2nd amendment guarantees Americans the ability secure their own peace of mind, without being dependent on government to secure it for them. Regardless of it’s effectiveness for society at large, the right to defend oneself at an individual level is a fundamental human freedom. That it also appears to decrease crime overall is merely a perk.

Like it or not, we live in a country in which guns themselves aren’t going anywhere. Within that country, all the evidence suggests that the right to own guns legally does much more good than bad.  Even without the statistics, this just makes sense: with access to guns an inescapable reality, it is better that this access not be restricted to those willing to break the law. If the problem of gun violence can be solved, it will not be by making it more difficult for law abiding citizens to defend themselves from it.

It is easy to be angry about gun crime in the wake of a tragedy, but it’s also critical to remember there is no evidence these tragedies happen any less frequently when we restrict the ability to legally own guns. If we want to prevent these events at the root, we have to change the people who do them, not the tools they use. The debate over firearms should remind Americans that not all problems can be solved by more government restrictions. In the vast majority of cases, the urge to ban things we don’t like in society proves more dangerous than those things themselves. Guns are no exception.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Some Statistics on Marijuana Prohibition's Costs, Dangers, Restrictions and Popularity

In my original piece on marijuana legalization (which you can read here), I was confined by the length restraints of a newspaper editorial column. As such, I had to ramble off a bunch of arguments without actually providing the statistics that back them up. But I do have those statistics and sources, so I thought it warranted another post to provide them.
In the first section of that essay, I argued that marijuana legalization would be good for the economy and save us money. Here are some stats that back that up:
  • “State correctional spending has quadrupled in nominal terms in the last two decades and now totals $52 billion a year, consuming one out of 14 general fund dollars. Spending on corrections is the second fastest growth area of state budgets, following Medicaid. According to a 2009 report from the Pew Center on the States, keeping an inmate locked up costs an average of $78.95 per day.” – Quoted from Veronique de Rugy, economic analyst and writer for
  • “As of 2009, the annual cost of the war on drugs between state and local governments was over $40 billion.” - Jeffrey A. Miron & Kathrine Waldock: “The Budgetary Impact of Drug Prohibition” 2010.
  • All things considered,  a 2005 cost-benefit analysis done by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron found that legalizing marijuana and taxing it similar to alcohol would generate over $6 billion in new revenue and save nearly $8 billion in direct law enforcement costs. Those figures would only be higher in today’s dollars. Admittedly, these savings won’t do much towards closing our massive deficits in the short term, but every little bit counts. And more importantly, they undercut alarmist predictions that legalization would impose rampant social costs greatly outweighing the benefits. It’s also important to note that this is just for marijuana; further decriminalization of harder drugs would likely save even more money.
  • This is also only for one use of marijuana; according to Doug Fine, author of Too High to Fail, the industrial uses for cannabis may one day dwarf the psychoactive ones. Cannabis can be fermented to produce energy, and is already a useful biofuel that some say may one day reduce our dependence on oil. Additionally, a distinct variety of the cannabis plant called hemp can be utilized in the making of textiles, paper, paints, clothing, plastics, construction, medicine, cordage, weed control, cosmetics, foodstuffs, insulation, animal feed and other products, all in an environmentally friendly, carbon neutral way. And yet even hemp, which contains less than 1% THC and is not psychoactive, remains illegal at the federal level in the United States.
Next I argued that legalizing marijuana would make us safer. Here are some sources that back that up:
·         The Federal Office of National Drug Control Policy states that “marijuana…now earns cartels about $8.5 billion, or about 61 percent of their annual estimated income of $13.8 billion.” Naturally, if legalized, these profits would go away.
·         “No one knows exactly how much money Mexican traffickers make, but reasonable estimates find they pocket $30 billion every year selling cocaine, marijuana, heroin and crystal meth to American users…nobody knows exactly how much the whole Mexico-U.S. marijuana trade is worth, with estimates ranging from $2 billion to $20 billion annually. But even if you believe the lowest numbers, legal marijuana would take billions of dollars a year away from organized crime. This would inflict more financial damage than soldiers or drug agents have managed in years and substantially weaken cartels.”-  Ioan Grillo, The New York Times, November 1st, 2012
·         “The criminal prohibition of marijuana fuels an underground, unregulated, black market economy that empowers criminal entrepreneurs and jeopardizes the public’s — and the marijuana consumer’s — safety.” – NORML website
·         “Housing nonviolent, victimless offenders with violent criminals for years on end can’t possibly help them reintegrate into society, which helps explain why four out of 10 released prisoners end up back in jail within three years of their release. As the Harvard sociologist Bruce Western and the University of Washington sociologist Becky Pettit showed in a 2010 study published by the Pew Center on the States, incarceration has a lasting impact on men’s earnings. Taking age, education, school enrollment, and geography into account, they found that past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11 percent, cut annual employment by nine weeks, and reduced yearly earnings by 40 percent. Only 2 percent of previously incarcerated men who started in the bottom fifth of the earnings distribution made it to the top fifth 20 years later, compared to 15 percent of never-incarcerated men who started at the bottom. It isn’t just offenders whose lives are damaged. Western and Pettit note that 54 percent of inmates are parents with minor children, including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers. One in every 28 children has a parent incarcerated, up from 1 in 125 just 25 years ago. Two-thirds of these children’s parents were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. While we don’t yet have data on the income mobility of these children, Rucker C. Johnson of the Goldman School of Public Policy found in 2009 that children whose fathers have been incarcerated are significantly more likely than their peers to be expelled or suspended from school (23 percent compared to 4 percent). Johnson found that family income, averaged over the years a father is incarcerated, is 22 percent lower than family income the year before his incarceration. Even in the year after the father is released, family income remains 15 percent lower than it was the year before incarceration. Both education and parental income are strong indicators of a child’s future economic mobility.” – Quoted from Veronique de Rugy, economic analyst and contributor to

Finally, I argued that marijuana legalization would make people freer. Although this is obviously true just in the intuitive sense, I do have some stats demonstrating the extent of marijuana incarceration:
  • The “land of the free” imprisons more people, both in total and per capita, than any other nation on earth. 30-40% of these people are in jail for crimes with no obvious or direct victim besides the perpetrator”, with drugs representing the overwhelming majority of such cases…In 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 1,524,513 prisoners in state and federal prisons. When local jails are included, the total climbs to 2,284,913. These numbers are not just staggering; they are far above those of any other liberal democracy in both absolute and per capita terms.” – de Rugy
  • “Of those 1.5 million in state and federal prison, over 12% are in for marijuana offenses (as of 2004). Police arrested an estimated 858,408 persons for cannabis violations in 2009. Of those… approximately 89 percent were charged with possession only. An American is arrested for violating cannabis laws every 30 seconds.” - Uniform Crime Reports, Federal Bureau of Investigation.
  • This has the added benefit of reducing the huge problem of prison overcrowding: with over 7 million people under correctional authority, America makes up ¼ of the world’s prisoners. And as Matt Welch of Reason Magazine notes, “most prisons are overcrowded, underserviced, and exponentially more dangerous than any decent society should tolerate.”
  • Additionally, “black women in America’s inner cities have some of the highest HIV infection rates in the developed world. Why? Because their male partners contracted the virus behind bars, via consensual sex or rape, often going undiagnosed while serving out their terms.” – Welch.
  • The Berkeley linguistics professor and Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute says that the “massive number of black men in prison” due to the war on drugs is the main contributor to "the strained relationship between young black men and police forces… if the War on Drugs were terminated, the main factor keeping race-based resentment a core element in the American social fabric would no longer exist. America would be a better place for all….Because the illegality of drugs keeps the prices high," he says, "there are high salaries to be made in selling them. This makes selling drugs a standing tempting alternative to seeking lower-paying legal employment." – quoted from John Stossel article
  • And whether you’re an inmate or not, the practical detriments to freedom from the drug war are far reaching. “We can thank the drug war for “stop-and-frisk” harassment of young New Yorkers, for the transfer of military equipment and tactics to local police departments, for wrong-door SWAT raids that kill innocents, for an entire shadow economy of dubious jailhouse snitching and back-room sentence reductions.” - Welch

  • It’s not like we’re not doing it anyway. Even though pot remains illegal at the federal level:
    • “More than three million people started smoking it regularly in the past five years, and the rate of high-school experimentation is at a 30-year high. One in 15 high school seniors are smoking daily or near daily. And when a kid first lights up at about age 16, it’s usually not with a cigarette.” – The Daily Beast.
    • “close to half of all Americans by now have smoked it, and more than half, by some surveys, favor legalizing it…Nor has prohibition been particularly effective at preventing people its use. From 2002-2009, federal funding to enforcing the drug war increased 39%, and yet in 2009 illegal drug use reached it’s highest level since 2002, a 9% increase from the previous year alone.” - Welch

With such a diverse array of common sense benefits, it seems only natural that a majority of Americans now support marijuana legalization:
  • In October 2011, Gallup reported that 50 percent of Americans favor the legalization of marijuana, 2010 poll had it at 52%). Their support makes it all the more startling that neither major party has been willing to even consider the idea.
  • "The war on drugs has failed. It is diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction…It is wasting our resources, and…it is encouraging civil, judicial, and penal procedures associated with police states. We [here at NR] all agree on movement toward legalization” - editors of National Review in 1996.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Comparison Between the Spread of Slavery and Nuclear Disarmament

It's been about a month since I've posted anything on here, and I promise that will change in the near future. I have one week remaining until I return home for the semester, and when I'm churning over a lot of new post ideas for when that happens. But in the meantime, I had a brief and interesting though yesterday while studying for my Contemporary International Politics exam.

The debate over nuclear weapons reminds me of the debate about slavery in the 1850’s. Nukes are like slavery: something most agree is bad that we’re not sure if we can get rid of. Those who believe in deterrence are like the confederates who don’t see the problem with them spreading to places which had previously been slave/nuke free. Those who advocate nonproliferation are like the free soil northerners who thought the slaves/nukes we have now are impossible to get rid of, but we should not let them expand to new places. And those who favor a zero-sum nuclear game are like abolitionists, who think we have a moral obligation to get rid of this bad thing as fast as possible and ensure it never comes back - even if that means a centralized enforcement body has to encroach on the rights of some states.

This is an entirely meaningless observation for the effectiveness or desirability of any of those three stances. I just thought it was kinda neat how the same framework of opinions emerges for different issues across the centuries.