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Why the Drug Wars Go on
The jurors were weighing the plausibility of various accounts of the activities of one Frederick Goodman. The state contended that Goodman had been in possession of enough vials of cocaine to indicate an intent to distribute. The defense suggested he had been a victim of circumstances, happening onto Park Heights Avenue and Wylie last October out of concern his son might be there to score dope. The jury took about 15 minutes to convict. There wasn't much sympathy for Goodman.
When one sits on a Circuit Court jury for a minor drug case, the mind wanders. Most of the speculations are churlish: Does the defense attorney really believe the horsefeathers his client is pitching? Could the judge share his hard candies with the jury without tainting the proceedings? And then:
What would public choice theory say about anti-drug laws?
The question arises when one notes that the statutes, despite their expensive and sometimes zealous enforcement, have failed to improve life on the city streets. Why would society persist in a notoriously unsuccessful effort? It's the kind of question that public choice theory might have been designed to address.
The theory's core insight is that despite all their professions of selfless concern for the public good, public officials (and institutions) act principally out of self-interest. Simply put, every policy creation of government spawns a public-sector constituency for that policy's continuation. This public-sector constituency is as much a special interest group as any in the private sector.
When a public policy seems to have failed, but just won't go away, there may be a number of factors maintaining the status quo—failure to recognize the dismal results, hope that an amended policy (or more of the same) will work, or absence of a better idea. Public choice theory would add another perspective: The policy remains in place because public sector constituencies benefit from its existence and employ their resources and influence to protect their interest in its continuation.
In Baltimore, for example, drug commerce and use flourish despite the prohibiting statutes. The drug trade is so rampant that neighborhoods are defined by it in the same way neighborhoods of greengrocers or antique shops are tagged by their dominant form of commerce. In some urban neighborhoods, drug merchants are the nearest one finds to an entrepreneurial class, or even a self-supporting class.
This is an assertion of fact, not a moral judgment. One could say the same of the tavern business in Fells Point. In parts of the city, purchasing cocaine is little more difficult than finding a beer on Thames Street. As a practical matter, the criminalization of drugs has been a failure—a vastly expensive public policy exercise that has not affected the availability of drugs nearly enough to make a difference in the life of the city or its residents.
Thus the taxpayer receives little and pays dearly. The police-court-penal complex is very expensive. Drug-related crime—a product largely of the eradication effort's marginal impact on pricing—brings a nightly horror show. A criminal class imperils the innocent—its battles for turf far exceeding the misbehavior of people purveying legalized vice. Frustrated legislators ride roughshod over constitutional constraints on search and seizure, and cadres of paramilitary police, whose esprit de corps feeds on door-smashing, give every citizen cause for uneasiness.
Nor does the citizen benefit by becoming a juror, at $10 a day, to hear these cases. To convict Goodman took 14 people the better part of three days, including time spent awaiting jury selection. If the average juror's outside rate of pay is $100 a day, the group was taxed $3,780.
Yet the enforcement effort does have beneficiaries, in the private as well as public sectors. In the private sector, the distilling industry derives an obvious advantage. So do the drug vendors themselves, who enjoy premium prices, legal barriers to competition and low effective tax rates -- a combination so attractive that there has never been any shortage of people willing to enter the business despite its risks.
The public sector also has players who benefit from the failed policy. The elected official calling for sterner measures and bigger budgets for police, prosecutors and prisons appears morally unassailable. To the extent that he or she is successful, the law enforcement constituency gets to command a larger proportion of the community's wealth.
Police agencies that derive operating funds in part from drug-related property seizures have a direct financial interest in the maintenance and expansion of anti-drug laws, regardless of their effectiveness.
Similarly, public-sector employees involved in eradication efforts find their services much in demand. A trial judge in his courtroom enjoys a unique standing, one far loftier than if he (or the prosecutor) made a living writing wills in a storefront law office. The clerks are servants of an august court of law instead of a drab insurance agency.
The bailiffs, police officers and prison guards, who might otherwise hold factory jobs, tend bar or drive cabs, swagger among their fellow citizens with the threat of lethal force on their hips. This is heady stuff. None of them fears being laid off because of slack business.
All these people, moreover, along with the institutions that employ them, collect a rent off the below-market pricing of jurors' services, whose $10-a-day pay leaves more money for judges, clerks, prosecutors, court reporters, bailiffs, police officers and prison guards.
In short, much of the public sector holds a formidable stake in continuing the anti-drug war regardless of whether it works. This interest exists despite the fact that many if not most public sector employees may also sincerely believe in the existing policy—believe that the city would be worse off if drugs were legalized, believe that even if the end isn't in sight society must try, for its own health, to eradicate certain drugs.
There is nothing in public choice theory that requires us to interpret such beliefs as cynical or hypocritical. Public choice theory merely adds another perspective: The beliefs may be sincere, but those who hold them are also interested parties. The balance they strike between other people's interests and their own is apt to be similar to that found in the private sector, where people seldom seek to reduce their own importance or pay.
Nor does public choice theory speak directly to whether a particular policy should be abandoned. The statutes against murder, for example, have a large public-sector constituency, yet they haven't been altogether successful either. Still, we want to keep murder illegal, because in a civilized society there simply is no alternative.
On many matters of public policy there are real choices, however. Drug commerce may or may not be one of them. It's reasonable at least to ask those on the drug-eradication payroll why the millions they expect to be paid in the future will make a difference when all the millions in the past have not.
Baltimore Sun July 28 1993
Condensed from Barron's, May 5 1979
Children of the Revolution—A Yankee Teacher in the Cuban Schools, by Jonathan Kozol. Delacorte Press. 243 pages. $9.95.
Jonathan Kozol, educational critic and National Book Award winner, finds the redemption of Fidel Castro's revolution in the island's schools powered by a sense of "ethical exhilaration." His story of the Great Campaign of 1961 to rid the island of illiteracy makes its points largely through testimonials of Cubans who participated in the campaign, as young instructors (brigadistas), students or administrators. Thus, it offers extensive detail on the thinking behind a program that put 100,000 teachers—many of them youngsters barely into secondary schools themselves—into the countryside to instruct a largely illiterate peasant population (campesinos) in the fundamentals of reading and writing. At year’s end, the government claimed astonishing success: illiteracy slashed from 23% to less than 5%.
The recollections of former brigadistas still burn with revolutionary enthusiasm. Insists one young instructor: “. . . we could never find another leader like Fidel. He seemed to know the moment was just right for the campaign. . . . I did not know of Marx or Lenin at that time. I only knew about Fidel. I loved his courage and determination and I loved his openness, his honesty, and his imagination. I still feel very much the same way that I felt in 1961. It isn’t just for what he has already done—but also for the things he dreams to do.”
It’s a perplexing coincidence that so many dictators are such likable human beings. In any case, a little of this goes a long way, and there’s a lot in Children of the Revolution, presented without so much as a lifted eyebrow. Kozol, in fact, builds his own head of steam now and then, puffing away about pedagogues “close to the soil, toiling to win—beside these campesinos—land and liberation both.”
What of the campaign? On the surface, such a drop in illiteracy seems a stunning achievement. One finds a pertinent datum—the definition of literacy—only on Page 55: “first- or second-grade competence,” which “limits the learner to simplistic news, block-letter headlines, non-educative (e.g., exhortatory) posters, simple instructions and directions for machines. . . .” (A follow-up campaign, now underway, is aimed at eventually raising the population to ninth-grade competence.)
“The original objective,” Dr. Raul Ferrer, director of adult education, tells the author, “was political awareness—plus minimal competence for productive needs.” Kozol declares: “The Great Campaign of 1961, in simple truth, did not achieve, because it did not aspire to [more sophisticated] goals. It did enable 707,000 adults to read posters, poems, and songs written and distributed specifically for their use—and to comprehend the rudiments of the front page of a paper geared to their extremely modest competence.”
The fact that these materials, like the primer from which the campesinos studied, were crude political propaganda, is explained away by Kozol as an outgrowth of the revolutions siege mentality, which in turn was spawned by (surprise?) U.S. hostility.
After presenting the campaign as a national outpouring of youthful enthusiasm, Kozol mentions that “beginning on September 18, participation on the part of the teachers of Cuba ceased to be voluntary. A teacher’s draft began that day—applicable to all who had not volunteered, including those at primary, elementary, and secondary levels.”
He reports that “a coalition of mass organizations (Young Rebels, the Federation of Cuban Women, Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) carried out, at government request, a massive effort to locate and convince recalcitrant men and women not to be ashamed of their illiterate status but to join the learning force.” (One must ask: is shame over illiteracy the only reason a person might resist a politicized education?) He quotes brigadistas on another duty: “One job . . . was to help arrange the transfer of the former money [i.e., Batista’s currency] to the new money issued by the revolution.” Any excesses Kozol excuses: the young revolution had put too much of its authority on the line to allow the campaign to fail.
Nor can a revolutionary state afford time for dishonest, confusing distortions of the truth. Indeed, little time is so wasted at the Lenin School, or the Che Guevara School, or the Martyrs of Kent School, where a bright and fiercely argumentative girl shoots back at him: “Freedom means—when you are free from international capitalistic exploitation! . . . Freedom of speech is going to be important if you want to try to build up solidarity among the people in a land that is oppressed. Guns are quicker, though.” Asked if Cubans have free speech, another student replies: “We don’t perceive that as a useful question. In our society we are already free from exploitation now.”
Not thirty pages later, the author suggests mildly that a greater “breadth of intellectual access” and openness to doubt could achieve the campaign’s goals and concludes, “If this is a cautious statement, it is a hard-earned caution. My impulse, in the face of what I feel and see and hear in the schools and streets of Cuba, is to throw all caution to the winds and to speak solely of the decent aspirations and eloquest ideals that have already been made real.”
Whether the “good works” of a dictatorship—its attacks on illiteracy or birth defects, its attitudes on women’s status—rank as more than mentionable curiosities, on a par, say, with Mussolini’s punctual trains, is an issue never raised. Given the literacy campaign’s limited accomplishments, the destruction of any semblance of intellectual pluralism, one can only wonder at the adulatory tone, at the reference to “personal liberation” applied to peasants who had been taught to write to Dr. Castro reporting their new skill and signing off: “Viva la revolucion socialista. Patria o Muerte. Venceremos.”
When Barron’s reported last October that funding for Kozol’s 1976 and 1977 trips came from a foundation headed by Castro’s former registered U.S. agent, Kozol replied (Barron’s Mailbag, November 27) that (a) he hadn’t been aware of the connection, and (b) his independence wasn’t compromised, for he was well known as an “irreverent” writer little given to producing briefs for any regime. Yet the preface by Paolo Friere is more candid: “The book clearly is written for those who feel already a certain degree of commitment to the Cuban revolution. . . .”
In his irreverent pursuit of the truth, Kozol concedes to a Cuban bureaucrat that he faces certain risks: “I said . . . my words and viewpoints would, no doubt, be held up to abuse. . . . ‘They will not bother to say I am a liar. They will simply say I am naïve—or inept.’”
His translator warns of more dire consequences: “Social pressure will bear down on you. Your publishers will lead you to feel worried. . . . Then, at last, your mother and father will begin to feel alarmed. A social order that has weapons such as these has little need to put young men in prison. What better way to dominate their views and to suppress the ‘wrong’ ideas of independent minds than to enmesh a person in a web of terrors and anxieties like these?”
Ineptitude and naiveté are too polite a description for the selective blindness at work here. The watchdog Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, whose sign hangs outside a door on seemingly every block in Havana, is presented as a social services agency. The recitation of slogans is taken as evidence of ethical exhilaration. The indoctrination of the past generation through mandatory political courses is shrugged off as a misdemeanor.
Irreverence may have fallen on hard times, but not this hard. The scholar’s sponsors knew what they were buying.