Posts Tagged ‘Milton Friedman’

Debate on cannabis and other drugs

14 February, 2011 Leave a comment

Paddy Power are now putting Luke “Ming” Flanagan as one of those likely to get a seat in Roscommon–South Leitrim, behind sitting Fine Gael TDs Frank Feighan and Denis Naughten. When he came to prominence in the 1999 European election, he was regarded as a fringe candidate, but is now a well-liked Mayor, and since the retirement of Michael Finneran, a Fianna Fáil Minister of State, it has become ever more possible that he could be elected. He can no longer be seen as a single-issue candidate, but if he is elected, there could be a worthwhile debate on the issue.

Since his election, President Barack Obama has taken online questions annually. On each of these three occasions, a question on the continuing illegality of cannabis came on top. In 2009, he laughed at the question, asking what it said about the online audience. In 2010, he ignored the question and answered the second most popular topic, on net neutrality. This year, when confronted with a question on the subject from a former police officer, representing Law Enforcers Against Prohibition, he eventually has had to concede that it is a legitimate topic for political debate, though he waffled in his response.

There is a large element of hypocrisy in Western politics on this question. Just as it is commonly known that during the US Prohibition Era (1920–33), public figures as high as Presidents, notably Warren G. Harding (serving 1921–23) felt free to privately drink alcohol, many public figures today will happily consume drugs quite a bit stronger than cannabis in high society. It is now almost customary for those seeking to lead their country to concede having taken drugs of one sort or other during the college days, from Bill Clinton not inhaling (actually because he took cannabis in cookie form), to Barack Obama, David Cameron and Brian Cowen more recently. Though somehow I doubt that Enda Kenny is carefully drafting a response to this question on his student days.

I fail to see how the current policy is either morally justifiable or effective in its aims. Those in favour of retaining the current regime of prohibition are arguing that all consumers of illicit drugs, however infrequently, should have a permanent mark on their criminal record. In a free society, we allow people take risks that do not harm others in the process. We allow people to go mountain-climbing or paragliding, despite the possibly fatal risks. We also allow people to smoke and consume alcohol, which are more harmful in some respects than certain prohibited substances. The effects of smoking a joint, leading a group at a party to mellow out, compare favourably the effects of drink which we see in the street violence in town on Friday night after closing time.

Freedom also has the record of working. I don’t seek to diminish the serious effects of drug addiction, particularly in drugs like heroin, but in Portugal since all drugs were decriminalized in 2001, the negative effects of drug use have decreased. They took the decision because the drug problem had got to the stage where it seemed the only sensible way to address the problem, and ten years later there is no movement from any leading political party or group to reverse the change. Glenn Greenwald, in a report for the Cato Institute, outlined the effects of their decision. For all substances, deaths from drug use have diminished, or at most remained steady. For example, deaths from heroin and other opiates stood at 281 in 20001. That number has decreased steadily since decriminalization, to 133 in 2006. Decriminalization hasn’t eliminated these problems, but it has made it easier to address them. This wasn’t just part of a trend, problems from drug use were increasing until they took the decision in 2001. Drug users are no longer stigmatized as criminals, making it more socially acceptable to seek help. Resources that had been devoted to prosecuting addicts could now be devoted to helping them. Drug usage rates continue to be lower in Portugal than under policy regimes with greater degrees of prohibition.

Some emphasize the economic benefits of legalization, that the transactions would be taxed, but I would see the primary benefit as the reduction in the influence of criminals and the potential for improvement in the lives of those who suffer. While a policy that has worked in one jurisdiction cannot necessarily be transplanted to another, at the very least, it should be treated as a respectable subject for debate, and that either decriminalization or legalization should be be on the table.

I’ll close here with a clip on the subject from the free-market economist, Milton Friedman. I would not be in complete agreement with Friedman, but he does present a clear case against prohibition. Among other things, he proposes the hypothesis that crack, possibly the most lethal of drugs, would not have been developed had it not been for the regime of prohibition.

Barry Goldwater and the GOP today

1 April, 2010 6 comments


Barry Goldwater, US Senator for Arizona 1953–65, 1969–87

I recently picked up a copy of Barry Goldwater’s 1960 classic, The Conscience of a Conservative, at the Trinity Book Sale. A short text, it succinctly outlines his small government stance. On basic principles, I would have a fair amount in common with his viewpoint, though I would start the conversation with the question of individual liberty. On constitutional questions, for example, I do believe that there is scope for changing interpretations of an original text, in line with agreed principles.

Corporations, unions and politics

I found his section on unions interesting from a contemporary perspective, in his criticism of their involvement in politics.

In order to achieve the widest possible distribution of political power, financial contributions to political campaigns should be made by individuals and individuals alone. I see no reason for labor unions – or corporations – to participate in politics. Both were created for economic purposes and their activities should be restricted accordingly.

Interesting that an old conservative icon took for granted the case against participation by corporations, half a century before the United States Supreme Court ruled the contrary stance this year in the Citizens United v. FEC case.

Freedom of association

I think there was a certain inconsistency in Goldwater’s stance on freedom of association. He argues for right-to-work laws which forbid contracts that make union membership a condition of employment. But he also voted against the Civil Rights Act on the grounds that anti-discrimination laws in employment impeded on freedom of association. I don’t doubt Goldwater’s personal integrity on the matter of race, but on grounds should an employer be allowed to require their employees to be white but not be allowed to require them to be union members. Milton Friedman took a more consistent stance in his 1962 work Capitalism and Freedom, opposing both right-to-work laws and anti-discrimination laws. Not, of course, that consistency in such matters is always a virtue.

Republicans since Goldwater

I do admire Goldwater, and I wonder how the Republican Party would have fared had he been elected President. When he won the 1964 nomination, his two issues were small government and the Cold War. He was always going to face a difficult fight that year, against President Lyndon B. Johnson just over a year after the assassination of President Kennedy. But it was after Goldwater’s overwhelming electoral college defeat that Republican candidates such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan determined to capture the votes of those termed the silent majority, by becoming a party of increasingly fundamentalist religious viewpoints.

Such was the alteration in what was seen as most fundamental to the Republican Party that Goldwater, who had been considered on the right relative to the supporters of Nelson Rockefeller, was very much on the liberal wing. He opposed the adoption of anti-abortion as a policy stance, and in the 1990s, called for the removal of restrictions on gay soldiers serving openly in the military, saying that “Everyone knows that gays have served honorably in the military since at least the time of Julius Caesar” and encouraged gay activism. In response to the evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell’s concerns about the appointment about Sandra Day O’Connor, Goldwater said that “Every good Christian should kick Jerry Falwell up the ass”.

He publicly dissociated himself from the right of the party, “Do not associate my name with anything you do. You are extremists, and you’ve hurt the Republican party much more than the Democrats have.”

A recent National Journal article by Jonathan Rauch, considering the leverage of the populist Tea Party movement, opens by writing “The history of the modern Republican Party in one sentence: Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller got into an argument and George Wallace won.” Mickey Edwards, Republican Congressman 1977–93 and a former chair of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), said that he wouldn’t attend this year, given that he could no longer identify with those now calling themselves conservative, and that he wouldn’t feel welcome, because they wouldn’t think Goldwater was a conservative. I would even wonder if Barry Goldwater would pass the purity tests to get through a Republican primary today. A few years ago in a debate in the Hist on genetically-modified food, Prof. David McConnell, President of the Society and professor of genetics, said, “I would like to support the Green Party, but I can’t”. Such is as I feel about the modern-day Republican Party. Except for California Senate primary candidate, Tom Campbell.

On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill

31 December, 2009 Leave a comment

In 1859, 150 years ago, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) published On Liberty, one of the finest expostulations of individual liberty in political philosophy. Mill was someone whose words in the years since his death have been expropriated by both socialists, who emphasize his ideas on collective ownership of firms, and by conservatives, who emphasize his suspicion of the state. While he does offer a lot to many political traditions, he should still be regarded primarily as a liberal, given his continual emphasis on the importance of the individual as a political and moral agent in society.

On Liberty is, of course, most famous for his delineation in Chapter One of the role of society in restricting the actions of individuals, with what has become known as the harm principle:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.

His words have since been appealed to in opposition to laws regulating private actions and speech. Read in context of the work as a whole, it is clear that Mill was cautious not just of the arms of the state itself, but also of society in general, which in the later Victorian era had become exceptionally moralistic. It had taken on a very middle-class puritan outlook, and he was critical of this attitude of social conservatives even when they did not specifically manage to get the point of legislating against what they determined as vice. He strongly defends freedom of opinion and expression, but his justification is more on the usefulness of alternative points of view in challenging received opinion than on the simple right of the individual. In his defence of freedom of practice and custom, he asks his English reader to consider their position in another society with different customs and taboos, which it would surely be wrong to compel them to follow.

Mill was no armchair philosopher. From early in his life he showed his deep concern for society through his actions. Richard Reeves, in his biography Victorian Firebrand, describes how at the age of 17 he found the corpse of a newborn infant, and from then realized how important education on birth control would be to the lives of the working classes. He distributed literature on birth control, contravening laws on obscenity and spent two nights in jail. At the same time, he strongly believed that parents, and not the state had a deep responsibility for the children they had borne. In Chapter Five of On Liberty, he believed that the state should require a certain standard of education, but that it should be “fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent”. While he did accept that the state should pay for the education of the children of those who could not pay for it, his beliefs that parents should be responsible for providing for their offspring were such that he argued that beyond those who could not provide for them should not have the right to bear children, something few who have a followed him could stomach, following the ideas of Rev. Thomas Malthus (1766–1834). While still on the subject of education, he anticipated Milton Friedman’s school vouchers in arguing against a state school system, saying that “a general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another”.

His own family and personal life was interesting. He was subject to a harsh educational regime by his father, the philosopher James Mill (1773–1836). In his Autobiography, he recounts beginning to read Latin at eight, and Greek at an earlier age, and reading many of the classic works in the original language at that age. He asserts his belief that any child subject to such an education at that age could learn as he did, in line with idea of the blank slate, where the capacity of our minds are not determined at birth, something I would highly doubt. He never got a chance to try such methods with any child of his own, being in a long-term relationship with a married woman. He met Harriet Taylor in 1830, married since 1826 to John Taylor. Harriet and John Stuart soon fell in love, but her husband remained alive till 1849, John Stuart and Harriet marrying in 1851, when she was beyond child-bearing age.

Mill also served a term in parliament from 1865 to 1868, and was an active voice, speaking strongly in favour of the Union in the American Civil War, in defence of the life of condemned Fenians, and on suffrage reform. His greatest parliamentary legacy was the beginning of the campaign for political equality for women. He moved an amendment in 1867 in a debate on the Reform Bill to change the word ‘man’ to ‘person’. He viewed the position of women in most households as an anomaly akin to slavery, “not felt to jar with modern civilization, any more than domestic slavery among the Greeks had jarred with their notion of themselves as free people”. He was critical of the Reform League for the aim of manhood, rather than universal, suffrage.

He had ideas on voting reform that received very little popularity, specifically the idea that votes should be given in according to the degree of education. Every ordinary unskilled labourer would get one vote, a skilled labourer would have two, and so on, so that lawyers, doctors, clergymen and artists would get five or six. Proposed when those at the bottom end of the scale had no vote at all, this was better than nothing, but was unlikely to appeal to many. He also opposed the secret ballot, believing that people should be able to account for their votes.

He also voted against the abolition of the death penalty, arguing “what else but effeminacy is it to be so much more shocked by taking a man’s life than by depriving him of all that makes life valuable”, and was an advocate of compulsory military service, so that there could be an army called at any time if necessary, without a permanent force, believing the latter more likely to be oppressive.

In economic terms, Mill was clearly a classical economist. He opposed progressive taxation, “to tax larger incomes at a higher percentage than the smaller is to lay a tax on industry and economy and to impose a penalty of people for having worked harder and saved more than their neighbours” and he criticized the paternalistic nature of factory legislation, creating “in the minds of labouring people the persuasion that it is the business of others to take care of their condition”. In his later years, however, he supported the rise of the working classes, believing that they should seek to own the sources of labour collectively, through cooperatives. Given changing times he lived in, it is difficult for any contemporary political tradition to claim his views wholesale, though with this mix, he fits most closely with the Liberal Democrats, as one would expect. He has served as one of the great influences for those across the political spectrum, and his ideas remain a yardstick by which people seek to justify their political actions.

Minimum wage and carbon taxes

During the comments on my decision to join Fine Gael, the minimum wage was mentioned, and the fact that George Lee is not in favour of abolishing or lowering it. I agree that this is to his discredit; of course, I was for four years a member of the Progressive Democrats, the party that introduced the minimum wage. I find it to be fundamentally a bad idea as a policy, and I discussed it today with Barry Walsh, President of Young Fine Gael, while he was on Nassau St with Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar, before I introduced myself as a new member. They were launching a policy to incentivize youth employment, and I asked if they had considered doing anything with the minimum wage. He answered that it would be wrong to reduce the wages of those at that level.

There are two points to that. The first is that with rising unemployment, many of those who are now without work would rather work for less than €8.65 than not to work at all. They would get more than they would through welfare payments, with the dignity of working. We have one of the highest minimum wages in Europe. This was sustainable during the boom years, where it was near enough the market price for low-skilled labour. But with profits going down across all sectors, the work of some employees will be worth less than €8.65, but both firm and employee would be better off if a wage of, say, €7.65 was legal. It is low-skilled workers who will most suffer from these measures, the very group that it is ostensibly trying to protect. While, it is not accurate to argue conclusively that the minimum wages will always, on balance, cause unemployment and reduce welfare, our current level is unsustainable. Given that it is politically sensitive to lower it, perhaps the next time it is lowered, it should also be pegged to a measure such as GDP or the average wage.

The second is that if the state, and we as a community, believe that there are certain minimum standards of income that should be met, it does not follow that it should be the employer who should provide this. Their role works best when they compete for workers and the market for their product. Why should the costs of welfare fall on the employer? We should rather step in and top up the wages through taxation. One of the simplest method for this sort of redistribution is Milton Friedman’s negative income tax, where workers earning below a certain amount have their wages topped up by a level proportionate to the tax credit which they would otherwise receive.

On the subject of provisions that could help employment in small businesses, after two years in government, it is a shame that the Greens have not made any progress in achieving the carbon tax to replace all or most of PRSI payments, as advocated by Greg Mankiw with his Pigou Club, and proposed in their 2007 manifesto. Were such a proposal implemented, it would have the environmental benefits generally associated with carbon taxes, as well as helping small firms, who pollute at relatively low levels and workers, who would find a small bit more in their payslips and find it marginally easier to find employment. If they want to find some way to make a lasting change during what time this government has left, I hope they do consider this.