Friday, July 23, 2004

The Vice Squad: Okay, here goes nothing.

My last discussion with Sandefur wasn't really an argument--we both agreed about something, and we were just hashing out the implications. In fact, the whole discussion got started because he was arguing Conservatives weren't really anti-welfare, and I had to chime in and say this Conservative, for one, was. Not only could independent charities operate more effectively than the huge bureaucracy of the Federal Government, they could give more one-on-one aid that would be more beneficial to the recipients. Besides, it's theft.

The subsequent discussion was simply about whether the states were still permitted to do it under the Constitution.

As big a stink as Sandefur raised about it, this isn't really an area where he and I, or any Conservatives and Libertarians, really disagree.

We do, however, disagree about vice. So this is the discussion where things get interesting.

The handful of regular readers of this blog are a wonderfully diverse bunch, and I know this is an area where many of them disagree with me. Also, Sandefur probably knows the actual tenants and points of my argument better than I do, so he's ready to pounce all over them.

But for me, this is the blog equivalent of bungie jumping. I'm leaping off the bridge here, and we'll see whether or not I've got my tennis shoes securely fastened.

First, I'm not a big fan of the drug laws as they now stand. Which drugs are legal and which are not seems arbitrary to me--is alcohol really less dangerous than pot? Have you read about the numerous cases of marijuana-related violence across this country? Of course not, because there aren't many. Not to say pot doesn't harm others--driving high is as bad as driving drunk--but wouldn't it be far better to sedate them with THC than rile them up with CH3CH2OH?

That being said, the mere idea that I'm even suggesting that the level of crime and violence in the country can be controlled--in essence, that the people of this country can be controlled--through which drugs we legalize and which we ban illustrates the absurdity of the basic premise of the argument that vice consists of victimless crimes.

The sad truth is, statistics for other crimes are too closely linked with statistics for vice usage.

So what does that mean? Do people have the right to ban, say, a strip club from moving in across the street from a high school, or in a residential neighborhood? If the strip club is really unwanted, won't the "invisible hand" of capitalism drive it out? Or will it attract a kind of shady, unwanted character that the people in town don't want to have around?

I'm dubious about this argument because it's a slippery slope. I work in the check cashing/payday loan industry, and a lot of people say the same kinds of things about my stores that gets said about strip clubs--that we bring in an uncouth sort of character who people wouldn't want to have around, otherwise. We've been blocked out of more than one community simply because people were worried about what type of people we would attract, unaware that the people we were attracting were their neighbors, who were just embarrassed to admit they needed us.

(In one community, we were kicked out for no more reason than that we had painted over the aquarium mural the fish store who had previously occupied the building had put there. The reasoning was otherwise, but that was the motivation.)

On Phil Hendrie the other day, Jay Santos of the Citizens Auxiliary Police was shutting down garage sales because they attracted criminals who wanted to scope out the houses and pedophiles who wanted to check out the kids.

But dang it, if a razor blade factory was to open up across from a park, and they used faulty delivery trucks that spilled razor blades all over the place as the trucks drove around, somebody would have to stop the negligent behavior of the factory.

So if a den of vice is actually contributing to the crime of a community, the den should be held accountable for it.

In other words, the first condition of my accepting legalized vice would be the purveyors of vice would have to cooperate fully with law enforcement. If an officer comes in with a picture and says, does this guy come here, fingers would need to point.

The next argument is stronger, and that is that most "victimless" crimes are not really victimless. Drinking often leads to drunk driving murders or domestic violence. Drug addiction often leads to burglary and other crimes to pay off pushers.

So my second tenant for legalized vice would be that people who commit crimes while under the influence of or motivated by vice would have to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

There is no "Twinkie defense," where you get to say your punishment should be less since you wouldn't have done it if you hadn't been "temporarily not of sound mind" due to one chemical or another. That's not fair to the victims of the crime, whose rights were not infringed upon one iota less by your having been under the influence of something you chose to take.

If you can't accept that, then you're left with the idea of vice-addicted as victim. The criminals in this case would be the drug dealers, who are abusing the addiction of their customers, shackling them in bonds as strong as that of any slaveowner.

I'm not fully behind this argument either, because I don't believe in anything that denies the free agency of man. Drugs are not real chains, and there are, in fact, means of escape from the bonds that, difficult as they may be, are not the life-endangering exploit it was to attempt to escape the slavemaster.

But I'm still uncomfortable with people profiting off other people's weakness. In one sense, I know, all of capitalism could be defined that way (lots of comic book dealers certainly profited off my weakness for GIJoe comics when I was a teenager, and I don't begrudge them a dime of that money), but pretty much the entire medical community has decided alcoholism is a disease. Does free-market capitalism really include profiting off pushing people further into an illness?

I can see the flip side of this one, too--I have a brother that's allergic to band-aids, and I wouldn't dream of saying that band-aid is contributing to the country's rash problem by continuing to market their product.

And I definitely have a hard time arguing against, say, medicinal marijuana, especially in terminal cases ("Hey, you can't smoke that joint! You'll get cancer and die in twenty years!").

But I still can't rest easy with the idea of bags of crack with colorful logos on the front hanging from a hook by the register at the local Rite-Aid. In large part, it's because the entire concept needed to sell these drugs is a lie. What they proport to offer--good times, good feelings, good energy, good feelings about yourself--is really a mask, a thinly veiled facade for the addiction they pull you into, the damage they do to various parts of your body, the lower levels of joy, self-esteem, and well-being they leave you with.

It's like Dan Akroyd sitting there with the "Bag O'Glass" and "Switchblade Suzie" on Saturday Night Live. Or like Cheerios with cyanide in them. Would we really let Cheerios sell cereal that had cyanide in it as long as they told everybody it had cyanide in it before they sold it?

Well, maybe. And maybe they wouldn't call it "Cheerios," they'd call it "rat poison" and they'd put it in the gardening care aisle instead of the cereal aisle.

But that's not what the people who would legalize drugs would be doing. They'd be marketing it for human ingestion, and their entire livelihood would depend on convincing people they'll be better off taking the drugs than they would without them.

On so many levels, that's just a lie.

Lying to the public should be a crime, especially if it affects the health and well being of the purchasers. So my third condition of legalizing vice would be that the FDA, or an agency like it, must still be allowed to exist, to verify the veracity of all claims made by anyone selling drugs, and have the authority to punish those that were deceptive.

The ability to prosecute and sue for false advertising is essential to the perpetuation of a free market.

I'd have an even harder time arguing against legalized drugs if profit was taken out of them altogether. This, to me, would be a difficult scenario to argue against--one person, making a voluntary choice, which no one had a motive, financial or otherwise, to push him towards, and which affects only him.

But that's not the scenario real legalized drugs would fall into. We'd have a person, driven by a bevy of advertising and information to something harmful, which could inhibit his ability to keep himself from actions that would affect those around him, and which could lead him to an addiction he is incapable of overcoming without help.

We can see it with legal vice. Gambling houses promise "HUGE PRIZES" and "BIG PAYOUTS." If they were honest that blinking sign above the nickel slots would say "WE'LL GIVE YOU BACK SEVEN FOR EVERY TEN YOU GIVE US" (That's the law in Atlantic City. In Nevada, there is no limit on the house percentage, so it can be worse. Airports and gas stations and other places that don't depend on repeat business are usually much worse.)

The one by the Keno booth would have to say, "WE KEEP A QUARTER FOR EVERY BUCK" (The worst house percentage of any game in the casino).

I'm into swindling as a hobby. But there's a huge ethical difference, to me, between David Copperfield, who calls what he does "Illusions," and John Edward, who calls what he does "communicating with the world beyond."

So in other words, I can only conceive of legalizing vice if it can truly be compartmentalized so as to not affect others, and if it can be done without deceiving consumers.

And I have a hard time conceiving that scenario.

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