Friday, May 21, 2021

The Libertarian Argument - Legalize Everything?

Is legalizing everything a way of reducing crime?  Well, in a way it is.  If everything is legal, then by definition, there is no such thing as crime!

In my last posting, I mused that the drug wars have destroyed Mexico.  And the minute I hit "POST" I realized I would get howls of protest from the Libertarians, who would argue that it was the illegality of drugs that created Mexico's drug gangs, not the drugs themselves.  An interesting argument, but during the height of the "war on drugs" no such decapitating drug gangs existed.  Indeed, when we drove through Mexico in 2002, there was plenty of crime, but not on the level we see today.  Maybe it just took them time to get organized?

It was pretty funny, but on the way back to the US from Acapulco, we drove up Route 200 along the Pacific coast - not realizing that back then, it was a major drug-running route.  The scenery was beautiful, and the road would climb up into the mountains and then plunge back to the sea.   On these narrow, shoulder-less mountain roads, a guy driving a tanker truck full of fuel - "Doble Remolques" or two-trailers - would pass us on a blind curve. Coming the other way was an overloaded bus full of people.   We could see the drivers doing "hail Mary's" to the small statuettes on their dashboards before all three of us squeezed by, nearly trading paint.

Coming down to the sea, we came upon a town shrouded in what we thought was fog.  As we approached the town, we heard helicopters and saw Army trucks and many soldiers - most of whom looked to be about 16 years old.  Mounds and mounds of burning greenery lined each side of the road.  And at the roadblock was a young man in Army fatigues carrying an M-16 that was almost larger that he was.

As soon as I rolled down the window, I thought, "Gee, this smells like a college dorm" - and then I realized what was happening.  They were burning the marijuana fields.  And instantly, everyone in the camper was high as a kite - as high as the soldiers were.   The young man with the gun said to me, "Si?" and I said, "Roadblock?"  and he nodded and said "Oh, Si! Si!  Roadblock, Yes!"

"You wanted to see inside the camper?" I replied, and he said "Si!"

So we let him inside and he marveled at our Casa de Camiones with a microwave and a refrigerator and even air conditioning.  He looked inside the fridge and saw a bottle of Coca-Cola.  He looked at me inquisitively, obviously having "cotton mouth."

"Oh, please, help yourself!" I said, and he handed me his M--16 and started drinking the coke.  One of our friends offered him a bag of Sabrinas or Lay's Potato Chips as we call them, and before long there were three thirsty young soldiers in the camper, having snacks and carrying on.  It was a regular Cheech and Chong moment.

Finally, I said, "Can we go now?" and he said, "Si! Si!" and I said, "Don't forget your gun!" - handing him his M-16 back.

He said, "Si! Gracias!"

They never asked about the trailer we were towing behind the motorhome.  It could have been filled with bales of the stuff!  It was a surreal experience.

We later landed in Zihuantanejo, which is a nice town.  We ended up flying back there the next year - you can get a direct flight from Houston.  Nice place!

But I digress.  But not by much.  Zihuantanejo was famous for resisting the efforts of the central government to develop into another Acapulco.  The government built Ixtapa next door (hence the airport) and built high-rise "all inclusive" resorts that are favored by some.  But Zihuantanejo remained a sleepy little town with small hotels lining the beach.  In the village, they had a bulletin board where people would post pictures of corrupt government officials, and what bribes they asked for.  Maybe they couldn't change the system, but they could at least try to shame the people involved.  Of course, part of the problem is that government officials and police are paid so little that bribery becomes part of their salary plan.  The whole country is messed-up!

Anyway, a reader writes, arguing that if drugs were legal, all of this would go away.  I am not so sure about that, although the argument has a core of truth to it.  We tried, at one time, in America, to outlaw alcohol, and you know how that worked out.  The Mafia and the House of Seagram made millions of dollars supplying the illegal booze.  And today, we still have organized crime, although increasingly, much of what was bread-and-butter for the Mafia is now legal.  Take that, Libertarians!

For example, in the old days, you went to the corner "Candy Store" and would "play the numbers" or bet on horses or maybe on college or professional sports.  Today, the Candy Story is now a 7-11 selling lottery tickets legally.  The Off-Track Betting parlor takes your bets on horse races and even sports can be gambled on, thanks to the Supreme Court.   In America today, no one is more than a half-hour's drive from some sort of casino - we have one ten minutes from where I live.  They put you on a boat and drive it three miles offshore.

And loan-sharking?  Why bother when you can legally ruin yourself with a payday loan or a title pawn loan?   Loan-sharking is now legal - so what does the Mafia do for a living?

Well, funny thing, even when things are legal, there is still an illegal trade.  Reports are coming in that pot is still being sold illegally in States where it has been legalized, as the illegal pot is still cheaper than the heavily taxed legal pot.   As I noted before, any criminal enterprise can be profitable simply because it is untaxed.  So yes, people sell untaxed cigarettes to make money.  People still run moonshine - or did for a long while after prohibition.   I suspect if you legalized cocaine, there would still be an illegal market for it.

Whether it is the mountains of Mexico, where drug gangs hide out, or the mountains of Colombia, where they cook down coke from coca leaves, or the mountains of Northern California, where they do illegal "grows" of pot on Federal lands, if you wander into any of these places, you may likely end up dead.  And this has even been the case with booze.  Consider the "humorous" lyrics from the song above:
Once two strangers climbed ol' Rocky Top
Lookin' for a moonshine still
Strangers ain't come down from Rocky Top
Reckon they never will
And yes, "Revenuers" have been murdered in the past - along with other law enforcement officers - when they have tried to shut down these forms of organized crime.

Blow is an autobiographical movie based on the life of a drug smuggler. He started out stealing planes and flying to Mexico, where he would load up with marijuana and fly back to the States.  It was sort of a lark at first, but he quickly realized that marijuana was bulky and cheap, and that the risk was great.  On the other hand, cocaine was a lot more compact and expensive, and he could make ten times as much - maybe a hundred - per load smuggling coke as he could pot.   And the further he got involved with that, the scarier it got, as the amounts of money involved were so large that people were willing to kill over it.

And therein lies the problem.  Right now we are experimenting with legalizing pot.  Has this put an end to the illegal trade in marijuana?  Apparently not. But since the profits from pot smuggling are smaller, though, the drug gangs long ago switched to cocaine and later, methamphetamine.  And with the popularity of opioids, well, they've been smuggling in powerful fentanyl from China.

The list goes on - it is like playing whack-a-mole.  You legalize one drug, they will move onto the next one.  Ecstasy, LSD, synthetic marijuana, opioid derivatives - whatever.

Speaking of which, in our little town there is a row of "Sports Medicine" and "Pain Management" clinics on Route 17.   If you looked at the average local here - 300+ pounds in weight - you might be surprised to believe that we have so many athletes in pain here.  The reality is, of course, that many of these outfits are little more than pill-mills.  One local runs a chain of "pain management" clinics across Georgia.  If you thought the opioid crises was over - think again.   Like any good drug war, they nailed a few more obvious targets, but realized they cannot stamp out all of them.

And even though these pill-mills are "legal" and "prescribing" Oxycontin and other opioids which can be purchased legally at the local pharmacy, there is still a thriving business for illegal opioids.  In fact, the legal market for opioids drives the illegal market for heroin, Oxy, and fentanyl.   Once the user gets "hooked" on Oxy, they seek out additional thrills when the mean old doctor cuts them off.

Now, some might argue these are victimless crimes - after all, the only person you are hurting is yourself, right?  But sadly, a staggering number of people are dying from these drugs, which in fact has decreased the expected lifespan of our generation by a year or so.  Pretty staggering stuff!  We worry about Covid deaths, but Opioids have killed more people and will continue to do so - no vaccine is available.

The same Libertarian argument could be made about seat belts or airbags or helmet laws - and are in fact, routinely made.   Why make airbags mandatory?  If people wanted them, they would pay for them, right?   Airbags have been around since the early 1970's when they were offered as an option on Oldsmobiles, among other makes.  There were few takers.   Given the limited production volumes, they were hugely expensive, and thus few people ticked off that option on the order form.

In fact, you could make the Libertarian argument about any laws if you wanted to.  I suppose though, that any reasonable Libertarian (is that an oxymoron, or just a moron?) would concede that your unlimited rights are in fact, limited, when they intersect the rights of others.  Some folks argue that speed limits are "just a way to collect revenue!" (such people we call whiny losers).  But if you collide with someone, going 100 mph, and kill people, well, maybe that isn't a consequence-free decision.  Maybe we need speed limits to prevent people's "Freedom" from destroying the freedom of others.

But to what extent does the government go to protect us from ourselves?  And is it really that or something else?  The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was passed because people were selling adulterated foods and medicines that were making people sick and even killing them.  Is this another "unnecessary regulation" hindering business?  If we only just revoked all this "red tape" industry could take off and the economy would expand! And as for the little old lady who died from tainted medicine?  Too bad for her - she should have known better!

Of course, that is nonsense. Not only that, the greater good is served by such regulations. The companies that make and sell food products are not hampered by such regulations but helped.  People have confidence in our food supply and think nothing of consuming things they buy from suppliers, large and small.  Eliminate those regulations, and well, it would actually damage commerce.  Of course, to what extent such regulations should go is debatable.  But eliminating them entirely?  Not a good idea.

The same is true of automotive safety regulations.  We decided, as a society, to embrace the automobile.  If you are a public transit nut, maybe you disagree with that decision.  But it was already made before we were born, and it isn't about to change.  Americans love their cars.  So we built a trillion-dollar highway system that slaughters 40,000 people a year.  To keep the system going, we've had to regulate safety, emissions, and a whole host of other things.  The epidemic of stolen cars in the 1950's and 1960's forced us to create new regulations about VIN numbers and titles - the entire system would have broken down if insurance rates became so onerous that no one could afford a car.  And like I said before, such regulations, fought by the car companies, are now welcomed, as they keep out competition, to some extent.

But what about drugs?  Maybe if we legalized them, like we do with marijuana, it could regulated, taxed, inspected, and made safe.   But all drugs are not alike.  While you may smoke pot or drink beer and be "functional" as a human being, things like methamphetamine, cocaine, and opioids can cripple you.  Is it healthy for society for people to be wired on drugs like this?  Cocaine turns people into assholes and destroy lives - I've seen it firsthand.  Maybe there is a "functional" coke-head out there - I am sure that all the coke-heads believe this.  But as Steve Martin - or was it Richard Pryor? - once said, "A hit of coke makes you feel like a new man!  And the first thing a new man wants, is another hit of coke!"

If we legalized cocaine in the United States, I doubt it would be the end of the drug gangs in Mexico, just as ending prohibition didn't end the Mafia.  I suspect they would find some other outlet to make money illegally - trafficking in other drugs, people, or whatever seems profitable.  On the other hand, if people didn't demand these illegal things, there would not be a market for them.  And in good conscience, how can anyone lightheartedly snort a line of coke, realizing that someone probably died in order for them to be able to do so?  And by "died" I mean having their head slowly cut off with a chainsaw.  

No, I think the answer isn't "small government" or "less government" or "powerless government" - Mexico has demonstrated what happens when there is a power vacuum - others fill it in.  Libertarianism sounds great in theory, but in practice would be a nightmare.  Since the day I was born, sixty-some years ago, we have moved toward a more Libertarian society.  Things that were strictly illegal when I was born - gambling, drugs, loan-sharking, etc. - are now legal and run by corporations.  And people have ruined themselves by patronizing these enterprises.   Progress, eh?  And people want more of this nonsense?

Much of the world is already a Libertarian "paradise" of sorts.  Weak governments with few regulations means high crime rates and gangs running everything.  Most of the people living in these places are striving to come here - to a place where a strong government means law-and-order, and the idea of bribing government officials is alien to us.  This is not to say it doesn't happen, only that when it does, we are outraged by it, not consigned to accept it.  Oh, and it is illegal here and does get prosecuted.

And no, laws are never perfect.  Just because murder is illegal doesn't mean everyone goes to jail when they kill someone.  In fact, less than 1-in-3 do.  That doesn't mean we should abandon murder laws.  While laws may not catch and prosecute everyone, what folks don't realize is how many people are discouraged from breaking the law as a result.

I mean, I get it that people sometimes feel oppressed by the law - even if they have little chance of being caught at it.  I recounted before how my friends at the IRS told me that one of their biggest weapons is the irrational fear people have (and by people, this mostly means Libertarians) of being audited.  The scare stories printed in Reader's Digest are the greatest allay the IRS has, and they don't go out of their way to refute them.  The reality is, the GOP has largely gutted the enforcement budget of the IRS, and the odds of being audited are lower than ever.  President Biden wants to change that - which no doubt is bringing howls of protests from tax cheats.  Myself, I am not so much concerned, as I don't cheat on my taxes.

Like I said, Libertarianism seems like an awful lot of fuss to go through just to not have to register your car (it's a thing they do, google it).  While it may be a "hassle" to obey the laws sometimes, it isn't as much of a hassle as you might expect, and the resultant civilization we have developed is certainly worthwhile.  If this means I can't destroy myself through drug abuse, I can literally "live" with that!