Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Regulation yes, prohibition no

One of the slogans used by those who want guns not to be banned is “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” One can hardly argue against a proposition of this form, since it is a tautology. If X is outlawed, then only those who break the law can do/have X. So if parakeets are outlawed, then only outlaws will have parakeets. If sunbathing is outlawed, then only outlaws will sunbathe. My favorite instance of this logical form was one I recently saw on a bumper sticker: “If evolution is outlawed, only outlaws will evolve.”

The slogan about guns, of course, is somewhat more than a trivially true proposition. It does get at an important psychological truth, namely, the law of forbidden fruits. This psychological truth is reflected in the stories of many traditions, including in Jewish (and Christian) mythology. The story goes that when God commanded the first man not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2.16), then gave him a female companion, the first man and woman promptly ate the fruit of the only tree that was forbidden to them (Gen 3.6). As a result of eating the forbidden fruit, the man and woman became mortal, and their mortality was inherited by all their descendants. This feature of the story shows the potentially serious consequences of yielding to the temptation to do anything that is forbidden. And yet doing what is forbidden comes very easily to most human beings (and, so my observations tell me, to most dogs and cats).

People in the United States of America learned the consequences of trying to forbid the sale of alcohol during the Prohibition Era (1920-1933). Several other countries (Iceland, Norway, Finland, Hungary, Russia, the Soviet Union and some provinces of Canada) tried the same experiment with much the same results. The forbidden substance did not cease to be attractive, and the demand was quickly met by suppliers who, by the very act of supplying a forbidden substance, became criminals and made criminals of those who purchased the forbidden substance from them. It has been suggested by some that the advent of syndicated crime owes much to the attempt to prohibit a substance that was considered undesirable by some.

While people in the United States learned the consequences of prohibiting alcohol, they apparently did not learn the lesson fully. One still hears of people who strongly advocate prohibiting the sale and use of goods and services that they do not approve, thereby making the purchase of those goods and services criminal activities. Americans still have not fully realized the insight of the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi (Lao Tzu), who observed that there would be no crime anywhere if only there were no laws. It is lawmakers who make criminals.

There are several areas of life in the United States, I would argue, where prohibition is prohibitively expensive and should be abandoned altogether in favor of regulation.

  • The use of various drugs. The non-medical use of narcotics, opiates and amphetamines, and any use at all of marijuana, has been prohibited for quite some time. The result has been that all these substances are sold at highly elevated prices, so that those who are addicted to them are often driven to robbery and other criminal activity to pay for the illegal substances. Most of the crime associated with the use of drugs that are now illegal could be eliminated immediately simply by making the substances legal but regulated and taxed, in much the way that alcohol now is. This formula has worked with great success in the Netherlands.
  • The sale of firearms. Various legislators have proposed bills at various times that would ban the sale of various kinds of firearm. These attempts at prohibition are doomed to failure, and would, if ever implemented, almost surely lead to a great deal of violent crime. Banning firearms is hardly the route to go. More regulation of the sales and ownership and use, however, would likely result in a reduction of the amount of firearm-inflicted death within the United States. Licensing sellers, buyers and users of firearms has been successful in several countries in which the percentage of the population who die by gunshot is a fraction of what it is in the United States.
  • Homosexuality. Perhaps nothing is more absurd than laws prohibiting the natural expression of affection between two people who love one another. Fortunately, laws against homosexuality are falling by the wayside. There are those who still favor strongly discouraging homosexuals by making it difficult or impossible for them to have the full rights of marriage or civil unions, but polls suggest that the majority of Americans are now in favor of homosexuals being fully accepted in society (although a majority are still opposed to allowing full marriage rights to homosexuals). On this issue, Americans are moving slowly in the right direction, that is, toward tolerance and even acceptance. (There is a big difference between tolerance and acceptance. Tolerance still implies disapproval, but with a willingness to allow what one condemns to exist.)
  • Abortion. America has had a sensible position on abortion ever since the Supreme Court decision on Roe vs. Wade. Yet there are many Americans who favor a return to some kind of prohibition of this medical procedure. The experience of other countries in the experiment in prohibiting abortion is not very promising. Poland, a land in which abortion is illegal, has one of the highest abortion rates in Europe, often with disastrous results to women. It would be most unfortunate for the United States to revert to prohibition in this area.

Some time ago I saw a bumper sticker in the parking lot of a church that read “Prayerfully pro choice”. This bumper sticker could be applied to a wide range of behavior in this country. Opposition of a kind of behavior of which one disapproves is much better achieved through simply avoiding it oneself and trying through “gentle persuasion” (which is significantly different from emotional blackmail and intimidation) to influence the decisions of others. Vegetarians, for example, are much more likely to save the lives of animals by quietly pointing out the advantages of vegetarianism than by trying to pass laws against ranches and slaughterhouses or trying to shame meat-eaters. People who know the health hazards of smoking tobacco have set an example that could be followed in many other areas of life, namely, that regulation and education is far more effective than outright bans and prohibitions.

There is still time for Americans to continue the slow process of waking up to sensible and workable policies rather than dogmatic and emotion-driven strategies that nearly always fail.