I blame Schoolhouse Rock.
The central premise of Schoolhouse Rock’s iconic “I’m Just a Bill” cartoon taught generations of American children one fallacious lesson: The road to solving the world’s problem begins and ends with lawmaking.
“Some folks back home decided that they wanted a law passed. So they called their local congressman and he said, ‘You’re right – there ought to be a law.’”
This line of thinking – the causal relationship between policy and problem solving – preys upon our worst instincts. Often times, we experience a negative phenomena – a drug overdose, a school shooting, a terrorist attack, political corruption – and our immediate response is purely emotional: “Nobody should ever experience this again.” The pathway to this conclusion seems simple enough: ban the bad stuff.
Unfortunately, our historical experiments with banning bad stuff often produced unintended consequences.
Consider our “noble experiment” with Prohibition. Back then, alcohol was bad, so we banned it with the 18th Amendment. The result? The transport and sale of illicit booze became a prolific criminal enterprise backed by well-armed, violent gangs. The homicide rate in the United States steadily climbed between 1920 and 1933. Meanwhile, alcohol consumption – what Prohibition laws sought to minimize – increased 70 percent.
So, we repealed the 18th Amendment with the 21st Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933. The result? Repealing Prohibition not only destroyed the mob’s monopoly on alcohol but also ushered in a drastic decrease in homicide that lasted 11 years.
Fast forward 82 years, and we are on the cusp of learning the same lesson – this time with the War on Drugs.
The increased criminalization of drugs has yielded the same violent results. Between 2007 and 2014, Mexican authorities estimate that 164,000 homicides were the result of drug cartel violence. For perspective, during the same time period, civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq totaled 103,000 combined.
Aside from its inherent violence, the drug war is also economically unsustainable and counterproductive. We have invested close to a trillion dollars in drug-related law enforcement over the past four decades. And what was the return on investment? A black market valued at $100 billion annually and a drug-use rate that has increased.
Maybe we can learn from Portugal, which decriminalized drugs in 2001. Rather than locking people up, nonviolent offenders received a warning, a small fine or summons in front of a local commission – which included a doctor, social worker and lawyer – to educate the perpetrator about access to treatment. As a result, Portugal experienced two decades of significant declines in drug abuse, HIV-infection rates, overdose deaths, incarceration rates and drug-related crimes.
And this lesson applies to more than just drugs and booze. Consider every topical issue that you read about in your newsfeed.
The abortion rate has decreased, despite the fact that access has increased over the past few decades. Rather than legislating bans – such as the “heartbeat” bans passed in Alabama, Missouri and other states – removing barriers to contraceptives, such as legalizing the sale of an over-the-counter option, will yield better results in the reduction of unwanted pregnancies.
To become naturalized in the U.S., a citizen-to-be must be patient. Wait times can vary anywhere from six to 28 years – all depending on country of origin, family sponsorship, marital status, employable skills and a whole litany of other requirements.
The expedient option for most migrants – a group estimated at 11 million in size – is to simply remain undocumented, live within the margins and avoid fully assimiliating. People enter our country illegally because the path to do so legally is fraught with bureaucracy.
Gun control is often the preferred prohibition of those on the left. This very same side of the political spectrum also is deeply concerned about the racial disparities in mass incarceration. It turns out, these are competing beliefs. Nearly half of individuals convicted of federal gun crimes are black, despite representing only 12 percent of the general population. More gun laws means more people will go to jail, and the people who will go to jail – as current incarceration rates foretell – will be people of color.
So maybe there ought not be a law – or at least one that prohibits an activity where no victims are involved. I could offer some revised lyrics for “I’m Just a Bill,” but I can’t think of anything that rhymes with “unintended consequences.” In the meantime, think before you ban; you may be doing more harm than good.
Jay Stooksberry is a freelance writer and business owner and serves as chair of the Libertarian Party of Delta County.