Monday, May 09, 2005

Becker and Posner

I have just discovered a fascinating blog, apparently new (the archived postings go back only to December 2004), written by Nobel laureate economist Gary Becker and federal appeals court judge (and prolific author) Richard Posner.

Becker and Posner use their blog for a series of exchanges on current and controversial topics, ranging from the sexual revolution to bankruptcy laws to China's economy to plagiarism.

Here is a sample of one exchange, on the War on Drugs, initiated by Gary Becker:

Every American president since Nixon has engaged in a “war” on illegal drugs: cocaine, heroin, hashish, and the like. And every president without exception has lost this war. The explanation lies not in a lack of effort- indeed, I believe there has been too much effort- but rather in a basic property of the demand for drugs, and the effects of trying to reduce consumption of a good like drugs by punishing persons involved in its trade.

* * *

Assuming an interest in reducing drug consumption- I will pay little attention here to whether that is a good goal- is there a better way to do that than by these unsuccessful wars? Our study suggests that legalization of drugs combined with an excise tax on consumption would be a far cheaper and more effective way to reduce drug use. Instead of a war, one could have, for example, a 200% tax on the legal use of drugs by all adults-consumption by say persons under age 18 would still be illegal. That would reduce consumption in the same way as the present war, and would also increase total spending on drugs, as in the current system.
Here is part of Richard Posner's response:
I am in broad agreement with Becker. But I am somewhat hesitant to describe the war against drugs as having been “lost.” By that token, so has the war against bank robbery, or any other crime, been lost, because there is a positive rate of these crimes as well. As Becker explains, law enforcement activity raises the cost and hence price of illegal drugs and as a result of the price increase reduces their consumption. If the object of the “war on drugs” is to reduce rather than completely eliminate the consumption of illegal drugs, then the war has been partially won. Which is not to say that the partial “victory” has been worth the considerable costs. If the resources used to wage the war were reallocated to other social projects, such as reducing violent crime, there would probably be a net social gain. For one thing, it is particularly costly to enforce the law against a “victimless” crime, more precisely a crime that consists of a transaction between a willing seller and a willing buyer. The low probability of apprehending such criminals has to be offset by very stiff sentences in order to maintain deterrence. Yet if potential criminals have high discount rates, an increase in sentence length may have little incremental deterrent effect because the increase is tacked on at the end of the sentence. The present disutility of an increase in sentence length from 20 to 30 years may, given discounting, be trivial. Still another consideration is that if the principal effect of illegal drugs is to impair the health and productivity of the consumer of the drugs, then it is just another species of self-destructive behavior and we normally allow people to engage in such behavior if they want; it is an aspect of liberty.

* * *

The political source of the war on drugs is mysterious if, as I am inclined to believe, there is a legal substitute for every one of the illegal drugs: selective serotonin uptake reinhibitors (e.g., Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft) and other antidepressive drugs for cocaine, liquor and tranquillizers for heroin, cigarettes for marijuana, caffeine and steroids for “uppers.” Obviously these are not perfect substitutes; and some of the illegal drugs may be more potent or addictive or physically or psychologically injurious than the legal ones. But it is apparent that our society has no general policy against the consumption of mind-altering substances, and there seems to be a certain arbitrariness in the choice of the subset to prohibit. If these drugs were regulated instead of being prohibited, their content could be made less potent and addictive and consumers could be warned more systematically about their dangers, as they are about the dangers of cigarettes and prescription drugs.

Oddly enough, I discovered the Becker-Posner project on the blogroll of Arianna Huffington's new celebrity blog, which includes contributions from Larry David, Walter Cronkite, Senator Jon Corzine, and Harry Shearer, among others.

No matter how I found out about it, the Becker-Posner blog is worth a look for its civil dialogue, erudition, and clear thinking -- not to mention its principled libertarian point(s) of view.

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