Alcohol, Drugs, Homelessness and Crime, 6/23
What is the right approach? Are libertarians on the wrong side?
Advocates of legalization tend to argue that all of the crime, and particularly all of the violent crime, associated with drug use is a product of criminalization. Legalize it, they argue, and a legitimate market would drive out violent actors. This argument tends to turn on exactly the example you alluded to, alcohol Prohibition in the United States, which is commonly asserted to have driven up violence as gangs fought for control of territory. In reality, the story is a little more complicated: yes, the gangs were associated with crime, but Americans really did drink less, which should have led to a reduction in violence, including particularly domestic violence.
…the bet of the prohibitionist is that by making drugs more costly to obtain, prohibition constrains the number of users and the number of uses such that the total number of life years lost (a crude statistic) is less than under some other arrangement.
There is a high correlation between substance abuse and various pathologies, including criminality, homelessness, poor health, psychological problems, and “deaths of despair.” One possibility is that substance abuse plays no causal role. Instead, for people who are born with these pathologies, drugs and alcohol provide a relief from pain. Under those assumptions, the libertarian approach is justified.
But another possibility is that drugs and alcohol make life worse for the people who use them. And they make life worse for the people around them. This creates a case for trying to stop people from using drugs and alcohol.
I planned this post for this morning, and then I woke up to a post on the same topic by Scott Alexander. So I end up with a lot of words devoted to Scott’s piece, and if you want to get back to my take you have to skip to the end.
Scott Alexander on Michael Shellenberger
After reading San Fransicko, Scott Alexander decided to attempt his usual thorough evaluation of research related to these issues, particularly regarding substance abuse and homelessness.
Overall, I’m disappointed in most of the published research on this question, which seems more interested in producing glossy brochures about funding disparities than in informing anybody what any of their numbers mean. But putting it all together and squinting really hard, I think we can tell a story where 10-20% of the homeless are seriously psychotic, and another 20-30% have contributing mental health conditions including depression, PTSD, and others. Somewhere between 25% and 50% of the homeless have substance abuse problems, and this probably mostly overlaps with the 25% - 50% who have psych diagnoses.
What about San Fransicko’s main point - that as the US has wound down the War on Drugs, drug overdose rates have sextupled?
I think this is mostly not causal. I think the sextupling of overdoses is a combination of expansion in prescription opioid use, various forms of social decay making people less happy and therefore more likely to use drugs, and “improvements” in drug “technology” and the “supply chain” (eg production of fentanyl in China). I don’t know of any source that attempts to tease out the exact contribution of all of these things, but I would note that overdose deaths have risen the most in very conservative Midwestern states that haven’t walked back the drug war as much as California.
Alexander admits that his own approach, of trying to review all of the research, is not compelling to a casual reader. Too often, the reviewer ends up with what my father called the First Iron Law of Social Science: “Sometimes it’s this way, and sometimes it’s that way.” Strong polemics tend to be more convincing, and in the case of policies on substance abuse, crime, and homelessness, the left has the strongest polemics. In this context, Alexander offers some back-handed praise of Shellenberger.
He is taking swings at an omnipresent orthodoxy of creepily consistent spin and bias, while also telling a couple of fibs himself.
Shellenberger evidently does not admire libertarian approaches to these issues. Alexander writes,
San Fransicko also briefly confronts libertarians, who it treats as allied with progressives on these issues (as if progressives would accept alliances with the likes of us!) Still, its confrontation is not unfair. If we reject the extreme-maybe-strawman leftist view that drug addicts and the like are complete victims of their own circumstances who never made any bad choices, then the question arises: given that they are making bad choices, should they be allowed to do so? Shellenberger says no: using hard drugs is a bad enough choice that it’s worth enforcing (some) anti-drug laws and (softly) forcing treatment on addicts who can’t overcome their addictions themselves. A libertarian who accepts neither the strawman-leftist denial of agency nor Shellenberger’s principled commitment to using force here has to say . . . what? That it’s okay for these people to die slowly (sometimes not so slowly) because that’s what they chose? When it seems obvious that, given a little push, so many of them would choose something different?
Alexander characterizes Shellenberger’s solutions:
Break up open-air drug markets. Force addicts into rehab by threatening prison sentences for noncompliance. Ban camping on streets and force the homeless into shelters. Offer permanent housing when appropriate, but make it contingent on good behavior. Have a strong psychiatric system with ability to commit people who need it, and enforced outpatient treatment when appropriate.
Think of crime, substance abuse, and homelessness as disordered behavior. Think of a policy that tends to tolerate, or even to encourage disordered behavior as leniency. How much does leniency make lives better for those who are disordered? How much does leniency encourage more disordered behavior?
Using economic jargon, we can try to estimate two leniency elasticities. One is the elasticity of the quality of life among the disorderly. The other is the elasticity of the amount of disordered behavior.
Progressives (and libertarians) speak as if the quality of life elasticity is high and the encouragement elasticity is low. That is, if we are more lenient, the lives of disorderly people will be much better, and the increase in disorderly behavior will be minimal, or even negative.
Conservatives speak as if the encouragement elasticity is high and the quality of life elasticity is low. That is, if we are more lenient, we will get a lot more disorderly behavior and the disorderly themselves will be no better off, and perhaps even worse off.
My personal inclination is to view both elasticities as low. I take the view that disorderly people have a low quality of life, anyway, and you are not making it much worse by trying to use coercion to change them.
I do not think that leniency encourages much more disorderly behavior, because most people really prefer not engaging in that behavior. But I think that it is possible that leniency causes some people to stray, especially when they get started using drugs or alcohol.
The approach that I am inclined to favor is the “state liquor store.” This could be extended to the “state marijuana store,” or what have you. In this model, only the state can legally sell liquor. It can set a high price, and it can control the contents of what gets sold. If it takes the profit out of drug and alcohol sales, a state store takes away some of the incentive to supply those substances.