November 25, 2010

Might vs Right & The Law Of Unintended Consequences

St VĂ©ran - John Stuart MillImage via Wikipedia
Those who have given themselves the most concern about the happiness of peoples have made their neighbors very miserable.
~ Anatole France
["The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corn-cribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent."Reverend Billy Sunday delivered this quotation during a speech at the beginning of prohibition. Many people believed and hoped that prohibition would make the above true. However, as they watched and waited, they realized that nothing was improved, and somehow, things had gotten worse.
The following are statistics detailing how much worse crime got:
  • Police funding: INCREASED $1.4Million
  • Arrests for Prohibition Laws Violations: INCREASED 102+%
  • Arrests for Drunkenness and Disorderly Conduct: INCREASED 41%
  • Arrests of Drunken Drivers: INCREASED 81%
  • Thefts and Burglaries: INCREASED 9%
  • Homicides, Assault, and Battery: INCREASED 13%
  • Number of Federal Convicts: INCREASED 561%
  • Federal Prison Population: INCREASED 366%
  • Total Federal Expenditures on Penal Institutions: INCREASED 1,000%
"Not only did the number of serious crimes increase, but crime became organized. Criminal groups organize around the steady source of income provided by laws against victimless crimes such as consuming alcohol or drugs, gambling and prostitution. In the process of providing goods and services those criminal organizations resort to real crimes in defense of sales territories, brand names and labor contracts. That is true of extensive crime syndicates (the Mafia) as well as street gangs, a criminal element that first surfaced during prohibition."] - Organized Crime and Prohibition.

Not mentioned in the article excerpted above is that the incidence of death from alcohol poisoning and blindness resulting from imbibing improperly manufactured and highly toxic home-made brews also increased substantially. As noted in the article as well, prior to 1920 - the year of prohibition's commencement, crime existed only as a small-business venture, so-to-speak. Al Capone, who was a 'two-bit' hustler and pimp before then, quickly rose to prominence as the head of one of the many powerful crime syndicates created in that era.

While it is generally understood that, as free adults no other human has a right to dictate to us what we may decide to ingest, choose to wear as clothing, or view in electronic or other media, such awareness of our individual rights as human beings seems to fall by the wayside when the weight of mass numbers is applied to the equation. For those who believe in the Almighty, they seem to somehow contract amnesia about the origin of free will. No, it is not granted from some benevolent earthly authority, but is a birthright bestowed upon all humanity by their Creator. Indeed this fact was clearly acknowledged by the Founding Fathers who, in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence made a sweeping statement on individual human rights, namely: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

This is also why, within the constitution of a once-great nation basic individual liberties are protected through the Bill of Rights, which was adopted in the form of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. These enumerate all rights that cannot be violated by the government, safeguarding (in theory, at least) the rights of any minority against majority tyranny. British political philosopher John Stuart Mill expanded on this principle, writing in his essay On Liberty"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others." Mill's 'no harm principle' aims to prevent government from becoming a vehicle for the "tyranny of the majority," which he viewed as not just a political but also a social tyranny that stifles minority voices and also imposes a regimentation of thought and values.

So, if I reside in close proximity to my Aunt Samantha and Uncle Samuel, I would respectfully choose to ignore their dictating to me what customs I may decide to engage in - even if those activities may somehow prove to be offensive to my relatives. And if I were to shorten their first names to a 3-letter nickname and include a few million or so neighbors who are similarly minded, this should have no effect whatsoever on my ability to make my own life choices. Of course that assumes a civilized society, rather unlike the one in which most people still exist in the 21st century, which are substantially based on coercion or in other words, might versus right!

Seen from a more enlightened perspective then, it should be equally abhorrent to anyone who allows himself the luxury of independent thought, for a government to for example, either insist that an adult woman can only be seen in public while wearing a full-face hijab, or that it is forbidden for an adult woman to wear such a garment in public - both are equally wrong-headed even though well-intentioned. And yes, both situations exist on planet Earth in the year 2010! In either case the ONLY person bestowed with the God-given right to make that decision is the woman involved. Or, let's say that you decided tomorrow to take up the dangerous hobby of sky-diving or perhaps even BASE jumping - is the government's role to stop you from endangering yourself (people can and do die every day from these activities), or is not their reason for being to ensure that no one forces you to jump against your will, and that you made aware of all the risks involved?

You see, these questions are more than simply academic. Most laws are actually passed with the best of intentions - whether you live under a Fundamentalist religious regime, a Communist autocracy, or a Western-type democracy. The problem emanates (in most cases) not from the intentions of those holding the reins, but from a powerful rule known as The Law of Unintended Consequences. The example of Prohibition with which this article began still continues today under a 'War on Drugs' which is both futile and unwinnable and demonstrates vividly the consequences of an unwise approach. If it were not so then prostitution would have been wiped out eons ago. The delusion faced by most Westerners is that, if the larger number of people believe it, then it must somehow be true - further that if they gain the majority advantage, then the minority will simply be forced to go along - by coercion. Instead what actually happens is that large sections of society become criminalized, serious crime proliferates, etc. Here are some thoughts on Unintended Consequences.

Like the foolish repairman who ramps up the torque on his wrench to ever greater levels in frustration at being unable to loosen the nut, until it eventually locks up or snaps creating an even bigger problem, governments of today's world have continued to apply more pressure as they try to deal with the challenges arising from recreational drug use with a tool that is destined for failure. Realization that the wrong tool was in use came too late for that repairman - it is to be hoped that this wrongheaded approach will be recognized sooner in the many ongoing crusades (drugs & otherwise) that continue to bleed resources and trample over human rights. They may want to take a long hard look at what made Decriminalizing Drugs in Portugal a Success.

Regardless of whether you remain of the view that governments should be allowed the right to prevent the citizenry by coercive means from pursuing happiness as only they see fit while not infringing on the rights of their neighbors (Aunt & Uncle Sam), it will become clearer in the fullness of time that allowing this group of fellow human beings more and greater control over our daily lives is indeed the 'thin end of the wedge' which will inevitably lead to the 'cure' being worse than the 'disease' and a patient who may very well not survive. More about the possible origins of the mess we find ourselves in today to come in the next article.

Drugs: Should They Be Legal or Illegal?
Prohibitions (eBook - Adobe pdf)
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