Tag: prohibition

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.

DWI Convictions Due to Faulty Breathalyzer Calibration

From the Washington Post:

Nearly 400 people were convicted of driving while intoxicated in the District since fall 2008 based on inaccurate results from breath test machines, and half of them went to jail, city officials said Wednesday.

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said the machines were improperly adjusted by city police. The jailed defendants generally served at least five days, he said…

The District’s badly calibrated equipment would show a driver’s blood-alcohol content to be about 20 percent higher than it actually was, Nickles said. All 10 of the breath test machines used by District police were wrong, he said. The problem occurred when the officer in charge of maintaining the machines improperly set the baseline alcohol concentration levels, Nickles said.

This is the same jurisdiction where a woman who had a single glass of wine with dinner and a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of .03 was arrested for being under the influence in 2005. The national standard for a DWI arrest is .08, and anyone testing below .05 is presumed not to be intoxicated. The District of Columbia’s standard for arrest was anything above .01 if the officer deemed the driver intoxicated. Public outcry over the strict policy, particularly in a town built on tourism, prompted the D.C. Council to temporarily amend the law. The D.C. Police website still says that police can charge DUI (Driving Under the Influence, not Driving While Intoxicated) for a BAC of .07 or lower.

There is good reason to question the foundation of DWI laws and enforcement. Radley Balko makes the case that the federal push for reducing the national DWI BAC standard from .10 to .08 achieved little for public safety in Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) founder Candy Lightner regrets the no-tolerance direction her organization has taken: “[MADD has] become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned… I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”

Life under Prohibition

Washington, D.C., has the highest percentage of marijuana smokers in the nation, reports the Washington Post. “More than 11 percent of Washingtonians older than 26 reported smoking marijuana in the past year – the highest percentage of any state in the nation, according to a 2007 survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.”

Is that a problem? Well, back around 1990 a satirical revue described the city government as “the nation’s first work-free drug zone.” But the people described in the Post article seem to work pretty hard, as scientists, businessmen, and so on.

One problem is inadvertently described by D.C. Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham:

“People don’t feel marijuana is dangerous, but it is, because of the way it is sold,” he said. “We frequently recover weapons when serving search warrants associated with the sale of marijuana.”

Exactly. Because marijuana is illegal, it’s not sold by kindly old liquor store owners. It’s distributed by people who are by definition criminal and who tend to engage in criminal behavior to protect their markets.

Its illegal distribution also accounts for another phenomenon that the Post notes:

Teenagers in parts of the city said they can buy pot more easily than beer or cigarettes.

Legal products, for sale to adults only, are harder for teenagers to obtain than a product that is illegal for everyone. Maybe it’s time to rethink the success of drug prohibition.

To ‘Control the Border,’ First Reform Immigration Law

The latest catch phrase in the immigration debate is that we must “get control of our borders” before we consider actually changing the current immigration law that has made enforcement so difficult in the first place.

In his Washington Post column yesterday, George Will wrote that “the government’s refusal to control [the U.S.-Mexican] border is why there are an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona and why the nation, sensibly insisting on first things first, resists ‘comprehensive’ immigration reform.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, Democrats in Congress this week unveiled the outlines of an immigration bill that would postpone any broader reforms, such as a new worker visa program or legalization of workers already here, until a series of border security “benchmarks” have been met.

Requiring successful enforcement of the current immigration laws before they can be changed is a non sequitur. It’s like saying, in 1932, that we can’t repeal the nationwide prohibition on alcohol consumption until we’ve drastically reduced the number of moonshine stills and bootleggers. But Prohibition itself created the conditions for the rise of those underground enterprises, and the repeal of Prohibition was necessary before the government could “get control” of its unintended consequences.

Illegal immigration is the Prohibition debate of our day. By essentially barring the legal entry of low-skilled immigrant workers, our own government has created the conditions for an underground labor market, complete with smuggling and day-labor operations. As long as the government maintains this prohibition, illegal immigration will be widespread, and the cost of reducing it, in tax dollars and compromised civil liberties, will be enormous.

We know from experience that expanding opportunities for legal immigration can dramatically reduce incentives for illegal immigration. In the 1950s, the federal government faced widespread illegal immigration across the Mexican border. In response, the government simultaneously beefed up enforcement while greatly expanding the number of workers allowed in the country through the Bracero guest-worker program. The result: Apprehensions at the border dropped by 95 percent. (For documentation, see this excellent 2003 paper by Stuart Anderson, a Cato adjunct scholar and executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy.)

If we want to “get control” of our border with Mexico, the smartest thing we could do would be to allow more workers to enter the United States legally under the umbrella of comprehensive immigration reform. Then we could focus our enforcement resources on a much smaller number of people who for whatever reason are still operating outside the law.