Drug War

Bad Policies Are Their Own Worst Enemy

Most people don't spend much time thinking about government policies, which is why bad ones can persist for years or decades.

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New York Times
Andrea Puggioni / Flickr

Newspaper editorials rarely make news—I've been writing them for a long time, and, believe me, I know—but one did the other day, when The New York Times came out for legalization of marijuana. It was an agreeable development for anyone who, like me, believes in letting people live their own lives, even if they do it badly. But its significance is much bigger than that.

The Times is not exactly at the vanguard of history here. With all modesty, I will note that I wrote my first column arguing against pot prohibition in 1982, when the Washington Nationals were the Montreal Expos, Starbucks was confined to Seattle and I had a full head of hair. The question is not why the Times editorial endorsed the change, but why it took so long.

Still, it's a big deal, and Tony Newman of the Drug Policy Alliance explained why. For all its liberal reputation, "the Times did as much as any other media outlet to legitimize drug war hysteria and its disastrous policies," he wrote in The Huffington Post. "The most powerful news outlet in the world coming on board, with the passion they did, should speed up an exit strategy from this long-lost war."

The Times' new policy highlights how much opinion on the issue has shifted on the legal sale and use of cannabis. Some 58 percent of Americans now favor it—compared to 34 percent in 2003. Two states, Washington and Colorado, have done it. The issue will go to the voters in Oregon and Alaska in November.

But this national shift is not heartening merely because it promises to reverse a policy that has been an extravagant failure. More important, it confirms that in the realm of government, Americans have the capacity to recognize mistakes and stop making them. Too many people know too much about pot to go on mindlessly banning it.

Bad policies, it turns out, are their own worst enemy. This is often hard to believe while those policies are in effect. The drug war began in the 1960s and isn't over yet. But experience is an unsurpassed instructor.

That's how Americans came to see the dangers of letting the government set prices: They lived through the 1970s, when inflation reached double digits and consumers encountered painful shortages of basic goods—gasoline, beef, lumber, even paper bags. Federal price controls not only fostered economic chaos, but failed to contain inflation, which was their whole point.

The public and the policymakers eventually came to understand that inflation was the result of the Federal Reserve's monetary policy rather than corporate greed. It also dawned on them that government price-fixing was a fool's errand.

When President Ronald Reagan lifted controls on gasoline in 1981, most people expected pump prices to go higher and stay there. In practice, they rose over the first year and then began falling. At the end of his eight-year presidency, they were down by more than one-fourth from where they were at the start. (Inflation fell as well.)

Nowadays, when gasoline prices jump, price controls are off the table. That's not because oil companies have gotten more lovable; it's because the public has gotten harder to fool.

Experience also prompted Americans to reassess their objections to same-sex marriage. For a long time, it was seen as a radical fantasy. In 1996, only 27 percent of Americans supported it.

But the world changed. Gays grew more open about their sexual orientation. Same-sex couples became more common. In 2004, Massachusetts allowed gay and lesbian couples to wed, and in 2008, Connecticut followed. Other states let them enter into civil unions that approximate marriage.

Opponents predicted disastrous effects. But the Almighty did not send a plague of frogs or otherwise evince outrage. The more exposure Americans had to the notion of gay marriage the less they minded. Today, it has the support of 55 percent of Americans.

The trial-and-error mode of education even works in foreign affairs. Vietnam showed Americans the danger of fighting a large counterinsurgency war in a distant place—for nearly 40 years, we shied away from such ventures. The occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have been strong doses of aversion therapy.

Most people don't spend much time thinking about government policies, which is why bad ones can persist for years or decades. But if the process of education is long, it bends toward wisdom.

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25 responses to “Bad Policies Are Their Own Worst Enemy

  1. The best words from any Steve Chapman article are, “Steve Chapman is on vacation this week.” That is my FAVORITE – and they don’t run it nearly enough.

    1. I’d give him 52 weeks a year.

  2. More important, it confirms that in the realm of government, Americans have the capacity to recognize mistakes and stop making them.

    AHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHA

    Good one.

    1. i rolled my eyes at that comment as well

    2. Marijuana Prohibition lasted 40 years and is in its death throws.

      Still, tens of thousands murdered in drug violence all over the world and some by the police in the United States, the virtual eradication of the Castle Doctrine and the 4th amendment, with millions of lives ruined forever from prison sentences, and the seemingly irreversible militarization of our domestic law enforcement.

      And still, maybe 30%-40% of Americans think marijuana prohibition is a good idea.

      Very little faith in humanity.

      1. amagi1776,

        Why do Americans “think marijuana prohibition is a good deal”? Why? Obviously, that disappoints you. Why do you think they are opposed to legalizing marijuana? Convince me, because I am in that 40%. State your case, and you might change my mind.

        1. If you’re mind hasn’t been changed already hopefully this will help:

          – tens of thousands murdered in pointless drug violence all over the world and some by the police in the United States in a futile attempt to police non-violent, victimless crimes.

          – the virtual eradication of the Castle Doctrine and the 4th amendment

          – Millions of lives ruined forever from mandatory minimum prison sentences. These additional prisoners also stretch state and federal budgets.

          – The seemingly irreversible militarization of our domestic law enforcement who are given automatic weapons, flash bangs, grenade launchers and armored assault vehicles to enforce non-violent, victimless crimes of smoking a plant with effects similar to already legal substances (alcohol).

          – Marijuana has scientifically been proven to be significantly less harmful than alcohol, both from a socioeconomic standpoint and an actual health stand point and the reasons for making illegal for health reasons are therefore suspect.

          – It erodes respect for law enforcement by incentivizing petty arrests which do little to improve public safety and more to increase the arrest statistics and budgets for Police departments.

          – Marijuana prohibition disproportionately harms the poor and minorities who are often the victims of civil rights abusing police programs like “Stop and Frisk” because they either don’t know their rights, or are abused/tricked by the police who are looking to increase their arrest statistics.

          1. Yeah, but drugs are bad, mkay?

          2. THE CHILDRUNZ!!!

        2. Fuck off and die in a fire Tulpa.

  3. The public and the policymakers eventually came to understand that inflation was the result of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy rather than corporate greed.

    oh, really? [citation needed] go round up the first 10 people you find on the street (who seem sentient) and see what they say about this…

    The occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have been strong doses of aversion therapy.

    *snort* Syria, Libya, troops still stationed all over the world in dozens of countries…drones. TEAM AMERICA RULES! TERRSTTTSSZ DROOL!

    Nowadays, when gasoline prices jump, price controls are off the table

    pfttt…Steve, have you been paying attention, at all? if not direct controls, we at LEAST need to investigate the Evil, Multinational Oil Companies and discuss whether or no to raid the Strategic Oil Reserve.

    The drug war began in the 1960s and isn’t over yet. But experience is an unsurpassed instructor.

    Yep – almost 60 years – we’re gonna learn our lesson ANY DAY now.

    1. were just a few charbroiled toddlers away from enlightnement

  4. More important, it confirms that in the realm of government, Americans have the capacity to recognize mistakes and stop making them.

    I wouldn’t go that far. This seems to have been forced onto government by the people as opposed to being initiated by government.

    1. True-rarely is anything good initiated by government.

    2. Just needs to have the word “occasionally” inserted after Americans.

  5. The public and the policymakers eventually came to understand that inflation was the result of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy rather than corporate greed.

    oh, really? [citation needed] go round up the first 10 people you find on the street (who seem sentient) and see what they say about this…

    Believe it or not, this was understood amongst sentient people in 1981. Carter appointed Volker, not Reagan. When Reagan re-appointed him in 1983, the Senate confirmed 84-16. (At 16% of the Senate is non-sentient, but they were probably split evenly between the yeas and nays.)

    1. I mean people today, off the street. cuase, y’know, ONE PERCENT!

      Volcker was a weird fucker. But, yeah, I remember that Carter appt him.

  6. More important, it confirms that in the realm of government, Americans have the capacity to recognize mistakes and stop making them.

    Yup. Absolutely. We see it every day.

    Belly button lint makes more sense than the average Chapman article.

    1. Good news! After 80 years, countless lives ruined, and countless billions spent, Americans are ready to maybe think about a small change at the margins of an obviously failed policy!

      Yay!

      1. Americans have been ready to toss out the failed expensive and destructive drug war
        there is just no pols who will end it because of the fear and control they can use it for
        to end the WOD they will have to reform their prescription laws to allow easier access to the medicines people need
        they tightened up the regs in NY and created a heroin problem since you can no longer get more than a 10 day supply of pain pills thanks to progderp legislation from Andy “the nanny” Cuomo

  7. “Newspaper editorials rarely make news?I’ve been writing them for a long time, and, believe me, I know?”

    So do I

    sincerely,
    Former Tribune reader

  8. WaPo helpfully points out = NYT Editorial Board Full of Big Pussies Who Tend to Make Strong Statements of Support for Social Views Long After They’ve Become Commonplace

    I assume the underlying message is still probably: “women and minorities have suffered worst”

  9. The War On Drugs did not begin in the 1960’s. It began in 1920, when the Volstead Act went into effect and the Federal Government developed a taste for interfering with people’s appetites. It came to full flower with the Uniform State Narcotic Act (final form, 1930) and the formation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (also 1930), which has been called a fairly transparent “full employment for Prohibition Agents” project with some justice.

    Saying that the War On Drugs began in the ’60’s omits three decades of ham handed social meddling.

    1. “Hammer-handed” would be more appropriate.

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