Is ending the drug war a free lunch?

We all know rationally that there is no such thing as a free lunch but politically everyone is still searching for one. Many Democrats seem to think that universal health care will be a free lunch. They plan to improve care, expand coverage, and reduce expenditures. They plan to do this without limiting choice and rationing coverage. If they ever get to implement their ideas failure is sure to be the result.
Likewise some Republicans seem to think that tax cuts are a free lunch. The government can raise more money by lowering taxes than by keeping taxes high. Thus you don't have to choose between low deficits and low taxes, you can have both. Now as the Laffer curve tells us this true when marginal rates are very high, but the rates where it is true have not been seen in America in decades. Thus the Bush tax cuts are responsible for about 1/3 to 1/2 of the deficits of the past few years. (Whether they were a good idea anyway is beyond the scope of this post)
The reason for not acknowledging the price of these policies is that politicians know that promises of a free lunch will get votes even if they cost the advocates intellectual credibility.
Libertarians seem to do much the same thing when talk about legalizing drugs. The benefits are well articulated, 1/3 less prisoners, more tax money available for other things, and less crime. However, the costs of legalization is that millions more Americans will try drugs and some percentage of them will get addicted. I would like to hear more on how much the cost will be. How many people are addiction prone? How hard is it to break drug addictions? Is the downward spiral of drug addiction inevitable or do only a small percentage of addicts bottom out? How addictive are certain drugs?
Being honest about costs give people more credibility when they talk about benefits. Since drug legalizers are not in a position to worry about elections yet, they need all the intellectual credibility they can get.

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It would seem to me that the

It would seem to me that the salient question here is whether it is any of government's business what the costs of something are if the prohibition (or provision) is unjustified?

Fine for me and you, but not for everyone

I agree with you Brian as far as forming my own opinion, but if you want to argue with someone who does not share with you the common ground that you mention (that it is unjustified) then what are you going to do? If you go on about the immorality of the drug war you will be wasting both his time and your time.

You take the tack of Radley

You take the tack of Radley Balko and point out the immense costs imposed by trying to prosecute the Drug War, in terms of manpower, materiel, erosion of the rule of law / corruption of officials, and of course the fact that the Drug War hasn't done diddly to addiction rates or availability, but has spawned a huge crime wave in the slums of america.

Ending the drug war means you can focus on the self-inflicted wounds of addicts vs. wounding everyone else in the process (and tending to no one).

The people have already

The people have already decided that it is the government's business to prohibit drugs. The reason they do so is they assume that the benefits of the drug prohibition outweigh the cost. If they could be persuaded the benefits are less than they think they might be amenable to ending the prohibition.
Remember Prohibition was ending because of the benefits of taxing alcohol and decreased crime outweighed the costs, not because the people suddenly decided alcohol was outside government purview.

Bush's tax cuts may have lowered deficit

According to the Christian Science Monitor:

US deficit is shrinking, for now
With the robust economy, tax revenues are pouring in.

CSM, February 21, 2007

A robust economy is a predictable effect of a tax cut. The robust economy has shrunk the deficit. So it is possible that Bush's tax cuts have shrunk the deficit. To put it another way, the empirical evidence, at least on its face, is consistent with the hypothesis that Bush's tax cuts shrank the deficit.

This is also consistent with a temporary increase in the deficit from a tax cut, because the boosting effect on the economy of a tax cut is likely to be gradual and long-term. There may be a short-term version of the Laffer curve and a medium-term (and long-term) version of it.

[update:] The very long term laffer curve may be very close to zero. Imagine two societies, one with a ten percent tax rate and the other with a one percent tax rate. Suppose that government completely wastes the tax money (a not all that unreasonable assumption). Thus one society burns newly created wealth at the rate of ten percent per year and the other burns it at the rate of one percent per year.

Now imagine that two hundred years pass. Is it not possible that the country with the one percent tax rate (=wealth destruction rate) will have a GDP more than ten times the size of the other country? If it does, then the total amount of tax revenue in the one-percent-tax-rate country will be higher than the total amount of revenue in the ten-percent-tax-rate country.


First off, TANSTAAFL is about actions, initiating new things. Using resources for some venture means you can't use them for others. End these actions and those resources are freed up. So in that way it sort of is a free lunch, but that's not what TANSTAAFL is about.

Second, marijuana is not addictive. It's true that some people drop out of life and smoke it constantly, but it's not because of any property inherent in the drug.

More broadly, this common argument in favor of prohibition rests on the assumption that there are some intoxicants that simply cannot be used responsibly. This assumption is false. There are some intoxicants that are very difficult to use responsibly, I'm sure, but that's another issue. And many people who oppose marijuana prohibition support it for other drugs.

And anyway I'd trade more

And anyway I'd trade more people choosing to live less productive lives for every police department having a SWAT team to shoot young children with and eventually start serving penny-ante warrants with.

Sullum's book is the best here

_Saying Yes_ is a nice resource on just these questions. In particular, it strongly argues that the downward spiral of addiction is *not* inevitable and that there are a lot of perfectly functional drug users out there, including cocaine and heroin users, who are very hard to count because, for obvious reasons, they're generally not about to honestly answer survey questions on their habits.

Nick! Get thee quickly to

Nick! Get thee quickly to thine account and suit up for the front page. :D

See Season 3 of The Wire.

See Season 3 of The Wire.

If only they'd do that in

If only they'd do that in real life.