Dumb arguments against libertarianism are increasing, as guardians of the expansive state begin to worry that the country might actually be trending in a libertarian direction. This may not be the dumbest, but as Nick Gillespie said of a different argument two weeks ago, it’s the most recent:
The deadly drug war in Long Island’s Hempstead ghetto is a harrowing example of free‐market, laissez‐faire capitalism, with a heavy dose of TEC‐9s
To be fair, author Kevin Deutsch never uses the terms “laissez‐faire” or “free‐market” in his detailed article, so we should probably direct our disdain at Newsweek’s headline writers. Deutsch does portray the second‐ranking guy in the Hempstead Crips as a businessman seeking to “recruit talent, maximize profits and expand their customer base.” But even the drug dealer gets the difference between selling prohibited substances and doing business in a free market:
“We’re looking to market, sell and profit off drugs the way any business would handle their product,” Tony says. “Only our product is illegal, so more precautions need to be taken. It’s all systematic and planned, all the positions and responsibilities and assignments. All of that’s part of our business strategy. It’s usually real smooth and quiet, because that’s the best environment for us to make bank. But now, we at war, man. Ain’t nothing quiet these days.”
Deutsch describes the competition between the local Crips and Bloods in terms not usually seen in articles about, say, Apple and Microsoft or Ford and Toyota:
As for strategies, they seem to have settled on a war of attrition, aiming to kill or maim as many of their enemies as possible.… They’re far better armed and willing to use violence than the smaller neighborhood cliques scattered throughout Nassau County.… They’re also able to keep out other competitors through use of brute force.… It’s one of hundreds of similar conflicts being fought by Bloods and Crips sets throughout the country. These battles breed shootings, stabbings and robberies in gang‐plagued, low‐income neighborhoods each day.
These are, of course, just the sorts of consequences that libertarians and economists expect from prohibition. As Tim Lynch and I wrote in the Cato Handbook on Policy a decade ago,
drug prohibition creates high levels of crime. Addicts commit crimes to pay for a habit that would be easily affordable if it were legal. Police sources have estimated that as much as half the property crime in some major cities is committed by drug users. More dramatic, because drugs are illegal, participants in the drug trade cannot go to court to settle disputes, whether between buyer and seller or between rival sellers. When black‐market contracts are breached, the result is often some form of violent sanction, which usually leads to retaliation and then open warfare in the streets.
Jeffrey Miron of Harvard’s economics department and Cato made similar points in his book Drug War Crimes, as have such economists as Milton Friedman and Gary Becker. Miron also noted that prohibition drives up the prices of illegal drugs, making the trade attractive to people with a high tolerance for risk. And so in that sense, it’s true that some people will usually enter the prohibited trade — in alcohol, gambling, prostitution, crack, or whatever — and will employ some techniques that are also used in normal business enterprises. As Tyler Cowen says, there are markets in everything. Given our natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange in order to improve our own situation, we can expect people to step into any trade, prohibited or not. Better that such trade should take place legally, within the rule of law, than underground, where violence may be the only recourse in disputes.
When the government bans the use and sale of a substance, and imprisons hundreds of thousands of people in an attempt to enforce that prohibition, that’s not “laissez‐faire, free‐market capitalism.” Duh.