The Corner

Drugs and ‘Rational Actors’

Thanks, Jonah, for the kind words. I agree for the most part, but would take slight exception with:

The argument for drug legalization rests on the idea that we are all — more or less — rational actors and that we should be held accountable to our choices.

I am very skeptical of the rational-actors model, unless we define “rational actors” so narrowly as to make it nearly meaningless (a bit like papal infallibility), e.g. a man is a “rational actor” when he comes to believe that the CIA is spying on him through his television set and therefore rationally turns it off.  That satisfies the formal conditions of the model, but in a trivial way.

My case against prohibition, beyond a strong preference for a very narrowly defined scope of state action based on historical rather than moral arguments, assumes that there are irrational (or, more precisely, ignorant) actors on both sides of the prohibition equation: People will make bad decisions about using drugs, and political agencies will make far more consequential bad decisions about policing them. And the failures of the so-called drug war are not only the result of honest incompetence; as in most or all political enterprises, the self-interest of the political agencies displaces those agencies’ supposed mission. That is why asset-forfeiture laws will be defended down to the last bloody fingernail, why many jailers’ unions and sheriffs’ associations oppose the liberalization of mandatory-minimum rules, etc. Drug addicts are a local menace; the DEA is a national menace. 

The hard math for legalizers involves those aspects of the European experience that suggest we can expect some higher level of drug use and related casual crime in a post-prohibition environment. But I am more confident in the ability of local police departments to handle things like burglary and petty theft than I am in the national government’s ability to effectively manage vices nationwide without stomping us into paste. 

I also wonder about the possibility of technological solutions. A question I’ve put out there before: If we developed a drug that offered all of the pleasures of cocaine or heroin, to such a point that it was an effective substitute for them, but entailed absolutely no physical or psychological side effects (for the sake of the hypothetical, say it would only offer one four-hour high, once a week, no matter how much you took), would that be a good thing or a catastrophe? I honestly don’t know how a rational actor should feel about that. 


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