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A blog on terrorism, democracy and international politics

Friday, April 22, 2005

The baby and the bathwater 

Michael Warby has had an opinion piece, "Drug Ban's Downside" published in The Australian. In the article, Warby makes an argument in favour of heroin legalisation, using arguments related to supply and demand, and - implicitly - regulation and deregulation.

Australia is in the middle of a 'heroin drought' brought about by effective policing and border protection (as Warby acknowledges). He also acknowedges reports that show the drug drought has led to plummeting crime rates. So why change a prescription that is working?

The central point of any ideologically libertarian argument for drug legalisation is that drug laws, by distorting the market, make heroin artificially expensive and therefore drive users to crime. The high price of illicit drugs thus funds organised crime.

There are, however, countervailing economic forces (for those who believe that the legal status of drugs should be determined by economics), as Warby acknowledges: "What is striking reading two online publications on the heroin drought . . . is that heroin users do respond to the rise in the price (including more diluted [sic] strength) and cost (increased search time) of heroin. Higher prices and longer search times mean less heroin use. Which means successfully restricting the supply of heroin can genuinely reduce heroin usage. A definite plus for a zero-tolerance policy."

Good news as far as the evidence goes. But Warby's ideology tells him there must be more to this. By reducing the issue to a theoretical abstraction (supply and demand), Warby loses sight of the real point of drug laws (to stop or reduce drug use), and sooner or later these false assumptions lead to an absurd conclusion:

"The argument for banning narcotics is basically the same as St Augustine's objection to sex: something so pleasurable and attractive overturns rationality, overwhelms morality and disastrously corrodes attention to one's proper duties."

Can Warby seriously think that banning narcotics and banning sex are comparable? A society in which nobody had sex would soon be extinct. A society in which everybody took heroin would quite possibly share that fate.

Sex is a natural part of the human experience. By counterposing man to woman, sex expresses the complementary nature of humanity, uniquely binding two individuals as one. As a central element of reproduction, sex is one of the most important creative forces known to mankind.

Heroin is unnatural and entirely unnecessary. It causes listlessness, isolation and anti-social behaviour. Depressing the respiratory system, the pulse and the nervous system, heroin is one of the most destructive forces in contemporary human life.

Put simply, sex leads to new life and heroin leads to death.

By equating prohibition of sex with prohibition of heroin, Warby unwittingly exposes his libertarianism to its own internal contradictions, showing the flaws in his argument better than any critic could. Essentially, the libertarian argues that if all criminal laws were abolished, no crimes would be committed.

The criminalisation of almost anything will intensify demand by stifling supply - but the point is to reduce overall consumption, not to reduce prices. Slaves, prostitution, heroin and explosives will all increase in price on the illegal market when they are taken off the legal market. This does not mean we can not or should not ban them.

The ultimate purpose of such laws is also not to price organised crime out of markets - eliminating organised crime is the role of law enforcement agencies. The heroin drought demonstrates that they are doing that job effectively in Australia.
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