No, we can’t. But why?

March 22, 2009 at 9:30 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

Over at FP, Stephen Walt lists a few areas of international relations where there’s overwhelming evidence that the current policies are flawed & counter-productive, but will never be changed. Here he is on the ‘War on Drugs’:

But there seems to be a growing consensus that the “war on drugs” (which we’ve been waging far longer than the “war on terrorism”) is both ill-conceived and poorly executed. In the United States, as in many other countries, our anti-drug policies focus primarily on the supply-side: we go after growers, traffickers, dealers and users. And the United States is especially quick to incarcerate anyone who possesses narcotics, even for relatively minor offenses. The results are almost certainly worse than the problem itself: our policy helps enrich drug lords and make it possible for them to destabilize whole governments, as they are now doing in Mexico and Afghanistan. Criminalizing narcotics possession has created a burgeoning prison population that is expensive to maintain and whose long-term incarceration produces a host of other social ills. (For a depressing analysis of some of them, see sociologist Bruce Western’s Punishment and Equality in America). As The Economist recently argued, “the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless.” Reasonable people still disagree on what a better approach might be, but decriminalizing narcotics possession and focusing on education and treatment programs would cost less and probably leave us no worse off in terms of addiction and its consequences. But a politician who seriously proposed such a course of action would almost certainly face a firestorm of criticism, so the current failed policy is likely to continue more-or-less unchanged.

Walt ends his post with a good question: “If a lot of stupid policies persist even when it is obvious they make little sense, what does that say about the capacity of democratic systems to learn from their mistakes?”

It’s a question which probably demands a longer response than the one I’m going to offer, but a few thoughts spring to mind. The first thing I’d say is that the legislatures of democratic nations are stuffed with politicians rather than policy wonks. Many have at least one eye on accruing more power for themselves, and those who are more interested in policy over partisanship will tend to specialise in certain areas. As a result, these issues aren’t talked about enough within governments, and that makes policy reform much tougher.

Secondly, there’s not enough of an electoral incentive to make changes. Of the issues Walt lists, electorates generally don’t see any negative impact upon their own lives, and if they don’t see how it’s detrimental to them, then it’s not an issue. One of the main reasons why it’s been such a slow trudge towards tackling climate change was the anxiousness about asking individuals & businesses to reduce their energy consumption; indeed, had we not witnessed eye-watering fuel prices over recent years, we might still be bickering over whether we should be taking action. Electorates mostly vote out of self-interest, not altruism.

I think we should also consider the role globalisation plays in discouraging international policy reform. For one country – even one as large & influential as the United States – to legalise drugs on its own would be a massive breakthrough, but it wouldn’t resolve the problems caused by the international drugs trade. Equally, if France & German offer farm subsidies, it’s in the interest of the British farming industry for its government to do the same. So the only way you’re going to change these failed policies would be by multilateral agreement, and that’s an even tougher trick to pull off.

Finally, in regards to the drugs trade, the consequences of our failure are often held up as reasons why the ‘war on drugs’ should be maintained or even escalated. A middle class kid dying from a drug overdose is used as proof that legalisation is madness; a mother’s gratuitous tell-all book offers evidence that even marijuana is a cancer on society; bloody feuds between rival gangs are added to the argument that the full force of the state should be used to stop them. The argument is both circular and self-reinforcing, and there’s absolutely no incentive for a mainstream politician to deviate from the script. All in all, this talk is a slightly depressive antidote to ‘Yes We Can’.

Beyond all that, this discussion leads us to an interesting off-shoot about the ability of democratic governments to avert crises. In the past decade, we’ve had plenty of warnings about international terrorism, climate change and the dangers of building an economy based on debt, but in none of those cases did our governments take pre-emptive action to reduce to the harm to their people. Despite the warnings, our governments only acted when these crises were in full swing, and, just to paraphrase Stephen Walt, I think there needs to be a lot of talk about what this says about the capacity for democratic governments to protect their people, and whether anything can be done to improve it.


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