Tag: prohibition

Government at War With Itself

An op-ed in the Washington Post discusses why federal farm subsidies don’t even make sense from an activist government point of view. Most farm subsidies go for animal-feed crops, which can be viewed as a subsidy for meat production. At the same time, the government propagandizes the public to follow healthy habits and eat lots of fruit and vegetables, but not so much meat.

At www.DownsizingGovernment.org, we’ve come across many federal policies that are contradictory. The government tells the public that X is good, but then it takes actions to do the opposite. Here are some examples:

  • Government health experts tell new moms to breastfeed, but the government spends billions of dollars a year on the WIC program, which subsidizes baby formula for moms.
  • The government imposes strict rules on property owners to protect wetlands, but the government’s Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation have destroyed vast amounts of wetlands.
  • The government enforces strict anti-pollution laws, but the Department of Energy and other federal agencies have been notorious polluters.
  • The Corps of Engineers has spent billions of dollars building levees to protect against flooding, but its own infrastructure has worsened the damage caused by hurricanes.
  • The government imposes tight rules to ensure proper funding and to prevent abuse in private pension plans, but its own “pension plan”—Social Security—is a Ponzi scheme.
  • The Constitution says that the federal government is created to “insure domestic tranquility,” but the government has spurred violence with alcohol prohibition and now the drug war.

My Cato colleagues are probably aware of many other contradictions, and it seems that the more the government intervenes in society, the more it will work against both the people and itself.

Are Corporations People When They Make Video Games?

I note that I’m not hearing many critics of Citizens United decrying yesterday’s very welcome Supreme Court ruling, in which the majority held unconstitutional a California statute prohibiting the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. Perhaps that’s just because they’re concerned with corporate influence on elections as a policy matter, and not so much about Grand Theft Auto, but as a matter of First Amendment interpretation, it seems as though the elements that supposedly made Citizens United a travesty are present here.

As the conservative Justice Alito notes in dissent, for example, the statute at issue here does not prohibit anyone from creating, possessing, freely loaning, or playing violent video games: It regulates only their rental and sale. In other words: Money isn’t speech! The majority opinion—authored by Scalia, but joined by the Court’s most liberal justices—roundly rejects the relevance of that distinction, which “would make permissible the prohibition of printing or selling books—though not the writing of them. Whether government regulation applies to creating, distributing, or consuming speech makes no difference.” While, of course, money isn’t speech, the majority here understands that when the effect and purpose of a regulation is to restrict expression, the First Amendment is not some hollow formalism, and also limits regulation that functions by targeting enabling transactions rather than the speech directly.

None of the justices seem to make much of the obvious fact that the great majority of popular video games—and probably just about all of the ones exhibiting the level of graphical sophistication and realism at issue here—are produced, marketed, and sold by (uh oh) corporations. In fact, the passage quoted above focuses entirely on acts (“creating, distributing, or consuming”) rather than particular actors, just as the First Amendment itself prohibits government interference with speech not with this or that type of speaker. The Court simply observes that because the statute “imposes a restriction on the content of protected speech, it is invalid unless California can demonstrate that it passes strict scrutiny.” In dissent, Justice Thomas argues that the games are not “protected speech” in the context of the statute, because the Founders would have considered all speech directed at minors unprotected (a premise whose chilling implications the majority is quick to point out). Justice Breyer allows that video games—including violent ones—are indeed “protected speech,” but argues that studies linking them to violence are enough to give the state a “compelling interest” in limiting their dissemination. What nobody suggests, even in passing, is that video games might cease to be “protected speech” if the statute were limited to games manufactured and sold by corporations—which, in practice, is pretty much all the games we’re talking about.

Someone who welcomed this decision as a victory for free speech, but nevertheless supports regulation of independent political expenditures, can always take Breyer’s route: Maybe God of War III is not really harmful enough to make its prohibition a compelling state interest, but the degradation of democracy by corporate influence is a serious enough problem that its regulation survives “strict scrutiny,” overriding ordinary First Amendment protection even in the domain of political speech normally regarded as its core. That is not a position I find plausible, but it is at least coherent. The position I doubt can be made coherent is one according to which a prohibition of a commercial transaction instrumental to corporate-produced speech (and intended precisely to curtail that speech) should not even trigger First Amendment protections when the speech expresses a political opinion, whereas the same prohibition is unconstitutional if the speech is about Kratos impaling a minotaur on his Blades of Chaos. Though if that’s the form political expression has to take to enjoy constitutional protection, I look forward to the impending release of Palinfamous 2 and Barack Band III.

Report: ‘The Global War on Drugs Has Failed’

“The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” That is the opening sentence of a report released today by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a nineteen-member panel that includes, among others, world figures such as former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana. The report is also signed by the current Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou, making him the only sitting head of government to openly denounce global drug prohibition.

The 20-page report says all the right things: prohibition has failed in tackling global consumption of drugs, and has instead led to the creation of black markets and criminal networks that resort to violence and corruption in order to carry out their business. This drug-related violence now threatens the institutional stability of entire nations, particularly in the developing world. Also, prohibition has caused the stigmatization and marginalization of people who use illegal drugs, making it more difficult to help people who are addicted to drugs. The report also denounces what it properly calls “drug control imperialism,” that is, how the United States has “worked strenuously over the last 50 years to ensure that all countries adopt the same rigid approach to drug policy.”

In the recommendations section, the report praises the experience of Portugal with drug decriminalization, mentioning Cato’s study on the subject. But perhaps more importantly, it states that drug legalization “is a policy option that should be explored with the same rigor as any other.” Until now, similar reports have denounced the war on drugs and perhaps called for the decriminalization of marijuana and other soft drugs, but they also have stopped short of mentioning drug legalization as a policy alternative.

This report is certainly going to receive a lot of media coverage in the upcoming days. It is, until now, the highest profile endorsement of drug policy reform that we have seen at a global level. And, by having Prime Minister Papandreou as one of the signatories, it offers the hope that other top office holders will also call for an end to the failed war on drugs.

The Consequences of Our War on Low-Skilled Immigrant Labor

Credit: Chiapas state government website

Authorities in Mexico intercepted two semi-trucks on Tuesday containing more than 500 migrants being smuggled across the border from Guatemala and presumably headed for the United States. An x-ray of one of the trucks that revealed the migrants struck me for its resemblance to those 18th century woodcarvings of slave ships crossing the Atlantic.

That analogy shouldn’t be taken too far, of course. According to the news reports, the migrants voluntarily paid $7,000 each for the chance to be smuggled into the United States. But like the slave ships, the conditions in the trucks were horrific, putting the lives of the men, women and some children in real danger.

People across the spectrum will try to make hay from this, but to me it argues that the status quo is unacceptable. No respectable party is in favor of illegal immigration. The real debate is over how to reduce it and all the underground pathologies that accompany it.

We can continue to ramp up border and interior enforcement, as we have relentlessly for more than a decade, driving low-skilled migrants further underground while driving smuggling fees higher and higher. Or we can expand opportunities for legal entry into the United States, and by doing so shrink the underground network of smuggling and document fraud.

Like the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, real immigration reform would go a long way to eliminating the human bootlegging that was exposed in Mexico this week. A robust temporary worker program would allow foreign-born workers to enter the country in a safe, orderly, and legal way through established ports of entry. It would allow resources now going to smugglers to be collected as fees by our government and otherwise put to work in our economy. It would save the lives of hundreds of people who needlessly die each year trying to re-locate for a better job.

If Congress enacted the kind of immigration reform we have long advocated in my department at Cato, our economy would be stronger and the human smuggling networks a lot less busy.

Bootleggers & Baptists, Sugary Soda Edition

Here’s a poor, unsuccessful letter that impressed the relevant New York Times reporters, but not their editorial overlords:

It may seem counter-intuitive that bleeding-heart anti-hunger groups and “Big Food and Big Beverage” would ally to oppose Mayor Bloomberg’s request to prevent New Yorkers from using food stamps to purchase sugary sodas [“Unlikely Allies in Food Stamp Debate,” October 16].  Yet the “bootleggers and Baptists” theory of regulation explains that this “strange bedfellows” phenomenon is actually the norm, rather than the exception.

Most laws have two types of supporters: the true believers and those who benefit financially.  Baptists don’t want you drinking on the Lord ’s Day, for example, while bootleggers profit from the above-market prices that Blue Laws enable them to charge on Sundays.  Consequently, both groups support politicians who support Blue Laws.

Baptists-and-bootleggers coalitions underlie almost all government activities. Defense spending: (neo)conservatives and defense contractors.  President Obama’s new health care law: the political left and the health care and insurance industries. Ethanol subsidies: environmentalists and agribusiness. Education: egalitarians and teachers’ unions. The list goes on.

It’s easier to illustrate the theory (and sexier) when the bootleggers are non-believers who cynically manipulate government solely for their own gain.  Yet one can be both a Baptist and a bootlegger. The Coca-Cola Company may sincerely believe that society benefits when the government subsidizes sugary sodas for poor people.  Even so, a bootlegger-cum-Baptist can still rip off taxpayers.

This morning, NPR reported on another bootleggers-and-Baptists coalition: anti-immigration zealots and the prison industry.

Spain’s Former Drug Czarina Endorses Legalization

Quoting great classical liberal minds such as Milton Friedman, Gary Becker and Mario Vargas Llosa, Spain’s former drug Czarina Araceli Manjón-Cabeza endorsed drug legalization today in a compelling op-ed [in Spanish] published in El País, Spain’s leading newspaper. Just a week earlier, Felipe González, Spain’s former Primer Minister, also came out in support of drug legalization.

Manjón-Cabeza takes particular aim at the UN International Narcotics Control Board for its criticisms of the different decriminalization and harm-reduction policies implemented in recent years in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and Spain, among other countries. She calls the INCB’s views “inadmissible.”

She concluded by calling prohibition a “savage and inefficient instrument that is not the ‘solution’ but instead a big part of the problem.” Manjón-Cabeza says that insisting on prohibitionist policies amounts to “insanity.” Finally, some common sense talk from a former drug czar.

The Dangerous Trade in Black-Market Cigarettes

NPR reports:

Black-market cigarettes are costing many states hundreds of millions of dollars a year in lost tax revenue. And the lucrative, illicit trade is attracting violent criminal gangs that can be lethally ruthless.

The rewards, and the risks, of dealing in contraband cigarettes became quite clear recently in northern Virginia, says Capt. Dennis Wilson of the Fairfax County Police Department.

Undercover investigators working with his department “had two cases where contacts that we were working with had asked us to murder their competition,” Wilson says.

The problem is that exorbitant taxes in New York state and especially New York City can add as much as $60 to the cost of a carton of cigarettes. No wonder criminals including “organized crime groups with ties to Vietnam, Russia, Korea and China” are getting into the business of buying cigarettes in lower-taxed states and driving trailers full of them to the high-tax states.

A Cato Policy Analysis warned about the problem of black markets and crime back in 2003, when the New York City tax was only $3.00 a pack ($30.00 a carton):

The failure of New York policymakers to consider the broader effects of high cigarette taxes has been a mistake repeated across the country in the stampede to maximize tax revenue from this demonized product. Too often, policymakers do not consider these effects in the erroneous belief that people do not respond to government-created economic incentives. The negative effects of high cigarette taxes in New York provide a cautionary tale that excessive tax rates have serious consequences–even for such a politically unpopular product as cigarettes.