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June 2, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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Bootleggers and Baptists

I: Introduction

Have you ever wondered why New World does not organise drive-by shootings of Pak ‘N Save? Why, if Noel Leeming has a dispute with a supplier, do they take them to court rather than summarily execute them?

I’m sure that these questions seem absurd to you. But in one area of commerce—the sale of illicit narcotics—these are the decisions that enterprising firms sometimes make. What is it about the sale of drugs that causes people to commit acts of violence to defend their turf, to punish people who do not pay, and to ensure a constant supply of drugs?

Some might argue that it is the nature of drugs themselves—that drugs make people violent, and so it is natural for those who peddle drugs to end up committing acts of violence. But this hardly makes sense. Alcohol also makes people more aggressive, and yet we rarely see Mac’s Breweries undertaking rip and runs against Monteiths. Moreover, many drugs, such as marijuana, make people less violent rather than more.

Others might argue that those predisposed to purchasing and using drugs are more likely to commit acts of violence—that drug use corresponds to other indicators of violence such as race or socio-economic background. While this argument may have merit at first sight, I believe that it confuses cause and effect. Why, after all, are drug dealers more likely to come from poor backgrounds?

I think the real reason for the relationship between drugs and violence is the fact that drugs are illegal.

II: Why Illegal Drug Dealing Necessitates Violence

Drugs are valuable, and it is reasonable to assume that drug dealers want to protect their supply routes and enforce their contracts. If I agreed to supply fresh vegetables to New World for a month and then failed to do so, they would take me to court and get damages. Equally, when a drug dealer enters into a contract that is not performed, he wants recompense. He is unable to get recourse through the court system, because it refuses to enforce “unlawful contracts”. Is it surprising that to defend his property rights in drugs, a drug-dealer seeks other enforcement mechanisms outside of the court system?

What is surprising is not that violence is used, but instead that violence is so seldom used. Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, said that life in a state of nature (that is, in the absence of a state) would result in a “war of all against all” and that life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” People thought that he was right for ages. It would take modern-day game theorists to lash him out. Game theorists have demonstrated that, with iterations, co-operation would emerge spontaneously in a state of nature. This is one of the key ideas underpinning anarcho-capitalism.
Equally, in the world of drugs, violence is not the primary mechanism to ensure contracts are upheld. In fact, given the costly nature of gang warfare (some people go to jail and others die), it seems more likely that they rely on other factors to demonstrate their willingness to abide by their contracts. Some ways they can do this are through building a reputation for upholding contracts or engaging in joint ventures to ensure the interests of the two parties are shared. In countries with more sophisticated markets in drugs, the Mafia acts as a de facto enforcement agency. Tony Soprano is the Justice Tipping of the black market. But violence is still the last resort for gangs—whereas the courts are a last resort to New World.

What this means, if you accept it, is that it is impossible to win the war on drugs. If we crack down on supply, drugs become more valuable. That means people have to go to extra lengths to protect their supply from theft. That means more guns, more violence, and more innocent victims. As soon as we come close to winning the war on drugs, we sow the seeds of our own destruction.

III: Why Some Drugs are Illegal

If you’re following so far, you’ll be seriously wondering why drugs are illegal. After all, if it is the prohibition on drugs which leads to violence, surely the obvious answer is to legalise them—especially commonly used drugs like marijuana?
Those who think like this are suffering from a disease I call democratic romanticism. This is the idea that the government does what the people want, because hey, we all get to vote occasionally. You probably also think that votes are a good indication of what people want. Most of you who support democracy are suffering under a delusion—a delusion that politicians are concerned with the public interest.

There are several problems with this. First, when the public interest comes up against a special interest, you can be sure that the general welfare is traded away to secure money or votes from the special interest. Take New Zealand’s tariffs on hats. This harms each of us in only a tiny way. We pay slightly more for hats than we ordinarily would. But the benefits to the millinery industry are massive—they are concentrated in the hands of a few people who reap excess profits. When you go to vote, you do not think “I’m really pissed off that I spent $1 extra on hats last year,” but the milliner is certainly thinking “I earned 100k from the tariffs last year—I’ll be voting to keep them.”

But the special interests are not so dumb as to make their claims in self-interested terms. They never say “we want a tariff to protect us.” They say “we want a tariff to help New Zealand workers.” Behind every special interest there is a bootlegger and a baptist. The baptist is the guy who is motivated by the softness of his heart. The bootlegger is the guy who gets the benefit of the special protection. The term came about when the United States introduced prohibition—the baptists supported prohibition because alcohol was evil, and the bootleggers supported prohibition because they would make a mint from alcohol being illegal.

Today, in regard to drugs, the baptists are the do-gooders like Jim Anderton, who is obsessed with taking away your freedom. When questioned why marijuana was illegal when alcohol was not, he threatened the questioner with the line “Don’t tempt me.” Behind Jim Anderton and the we-know-best brigade are the industries that would be harmed if marijuana and other drugs were legalised—the alcohol industry, bars, and yes, gangs.

The second problem with democracy is that talk is cheap. Have you ever seen those surveys where people say they want to eat healthier? Those surveys piss me off. If you want to eat healthier, then do it. People say they want to eat healthier, and then buy McDonalds. In fact, when McDonalds adds healthy items on to their menu, the amount of unhealthy foods they sell increases. Because a vote—like talk—hardly affects anything, we indulge our biases and fail to research things adequately. Students vote for the Greens ‘cause they love the environment. Then use the dryer. Talk is cheap.

Third, politics is necessarily short term. The reality is that drug use once someone is over 30 seldom occurs. So, there is a group of 18–30 year olds who have an interest in liberalising drug laws. But liberalising drug laws does not just benefit you—it benefits the future generations of 18–30 year olds. But they don’t get a vote, and you cannot charge them for doing the right thing and pushing for drug liberalisation. So, despite the fact that the long-term impact would be significantly beneficial, a democratic polity will continue to not act.
Contrast that with the private market. Some trees take 60 years of growing before they can be sold. Surely any person who is over the age of about 30 would be mad to invest in such a forest? You’d think so, but the cool thing about markets is that they allow you to sell to a guy 10 years later who pays a premium because he only has to wait 50 years. No such system exists in politics. That’s why politics is notoriously short-sighted.

IV: How To Get Marijuana Legalised

All I’ve told you is that when drugs are illegal, we get violence. That means unnecessary killings, brutal violence, and innocent victims. But there are other reasons why drugs should be legal. How about the fact that people really like them, enjoy taking them, and should be able to gain that pleasure without threat of arrest? I think that’s probably the best reason. Or how about the fact that I should be able to put whatever I want into my own body, even if it annoys you? Or, for the law students, how about the fact that enforcing laws against consensual acts necessarily involves a violation of rights? The reverse onus placed on defendants who have large quantities of drugs on them is inimical to a free society.

So how can we actually get drugs, especially widely used ones like marijuana, legalised? I think there’s two things we can do. First, we must normalise the usage of drugs. Normal people—lawyers, doctors, students, parents—need to come out and admit that they use or have used marijuana. Second, we need to use the delusion of democracy against itself. If enough of us decide to vote on this one issue—explicitly recognising that to do so is just as delusional as voting generally—then we can force political parties to respond. The Greens already support it. Rodney Hide has publicly stated that he supports the legalisation of all drugs. If we can get National and Labour to fight over the student vote, then where are all the do-gooders going to go?

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Comments (3)

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  1. Nigel Smith says:

    New World wouldn’t organise drive-by shootings of Pak’n’Save because they’re both owned by the same company.

  2. Hank Scorpio says:

    I think that’s the jok–

    you know, nevermind. great post, real food for thought.

  3. Joel cuntgrove says:

    I’m going to rape you hank scorpio

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