Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The March of Folly Revisited

In 1981, the American historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in The March of Folly:"Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other activity...Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and elightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?" 
The question is as relevant today as it was then, or during the gaffes of the civilisations that she described, from Troy to Vietnam.
One issue to which her question applies directly is the global narcotics control system. A construct which reflects mainly American prejudice about alien customs and fear of losing social control, and which was embedded into the UN system of drug conventions between 1961 and 1988. The Financial Times yesterday joined the growing chorus of serious media with a one-page spread on the situation in Latin America. Conditions in Central America are particularly dire, as drug trafficking to the US market that goes through the region has produced unprecedented and widespread violence (El Salvador is quoted as having 71 murders per 100,000, or nearly 12 times the level of the US, 35 times more than in Europe). The legalisation debate, the article claims, "is bogged down by legitimate fears about the risk of increased addiction rates". Why are these fears legitimate? In the 1950's, anti- communist paranoia was rife. It was used "legitimately" by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to create a toxic mix of fear and xenophobia  about an international drugs conspiracy to undermine the free world. The rest is history: by 1961 the world (i.e. the West) had painted itself into a legal corner by adopting the first UN convention on illicit drugs. By 1971 Richard Nixon had called for the War on Drugs, and today we have the world's fastest growing illegal commodities market ever.
So, what about those "legitimate" fears? Just how scared do we have to be of addiction? Not half as scared as we should be of violence and the growing bonds between the legal and black economies as billions in drug money are seeping into our daily lives. Does your town or city have no-go areas? Mine does, and the fact that drugs are illicit gives the local tough guys their "respect" and their currency.  Regulating drugs would not turn these people into honest citizens, but it would take a form of crime out of circulation that is so easy I'm almost tempted myself. It would also free up a lot of cash for prevention and treatment that is now being spent on rather unsuccessful law enforcement. Prof Kleinman from UCLA may claim that the former is "cost-effective but not very effective", at least it is not a ruinous and murderous joke like much of the law enforcement efforts over the last decades.
The fear is not "legitimate". It is understandable, which is entirely different. It is understandable because self-serving politicians have played on it for so long - assisted by sensational media - that the mere suggestion of doing this differently provokes outbursts of righteous anger, particularly from "people with children", who somehow have the moral high ground in this debate. What about children with parents in prison, usually poor, serving inhumanely long sentences for posession or small scale retail trafficking? What about children living in prison, as they do in some Latin American countries? What if your adolescent child gets a taste of tough drug laws, looses his place at school, his bright future suddenly cancelled? 
The fear can be addressed and the options for regulating the drugs market explained. However distatsteful the idea is to most of us, regulating drugs is being discussed by many serious people in civil society, universities, and unexpected places like the House of Lords. A lot of work has been done on it, the complexity and risks of the idea are fairly well known. What is lacking is a political class that does more than follow its most rabid electorates in stead of showing a statesman-like way out of the present mess.
Let me end with Barbara Tuchman again. To qualify as political folly, she wrote, the policy must have been recognised as counter-productive in its own time, and, secondly, an alternative policy must have been available. 
Good night and good luck.

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