The policy that must not be discussed

Over at Econlog I have a post discussing why most highly educated people have never heard of policy proposals that would provide clear benefits to humanity, but are very aware of policy proposals with dubious merits.  That is because only the latter group of policies gets debated in the media.  If everyone agrees then there is nothing to debate, and hence people don’t know about the ideas.

There is also another group of policies that get ignored, those where both the right and the left find the proposal to be completely beyond the pale.  In the US those proposals tend to be related to our puritanical approach to drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. One example is heroin legalization, combined with public treatment facilities for addicts.  Here is a British publication that is willing to “defend the indefensible.”

THE death of Philip Seymour Hoffman from a heroin overdose on February 2nd left the extraordinary actor’s fans distraught. Artists have always been prone to self-destruction, and no one knows how to change that. Drug-abuse experts do, however, have a good idea of how to stop more people from destroying themselves by injecting heroin.

Over the past two decades many have come to favour tackling heroin abuse through “harm reduction” policies, rather than tougher policing. Many governments have decriminalised personal use and provided free therapy programmes, using drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine that block heroin’s high. Two other proven ways to reduce harm, however, are more politically controversial: setting up safe sites where users can inject while monitored by health-care staff, and””for registered addicts who cannot or will not comply with treatment regimes””providing heroin itself free.

Switzerland and the Netherlands pioneered this “Heroin Assisted Treatment” (HAT) approach in the 1990s, and both countries later adopted it as national policy. HAT trials have also been run in Spain, Britain, Germany and Canada. The evidence suggests that HAT slashes heroin-related deaths and HIV infection, since users are shooting up under medical supervision. It also drastically reduces heroin-related crime, since addicts have no need to steal or sell their bodies to get money for their fix. Some studies find that HAT actually works better than methadone or buprenorphine. Heroin use is falling steadily in both Switzerland and the Netherlands; by the late 2000s the Dutch incidence of new heroin users had fallen close to zero, and the ageing population of addicts from the 1970s and 1980s continues to shrink.

Decriminalisation of marijuana use has also played a role in limiting Dutch heroin use, since it separates the use of cannabis from the use of harder drugs. More interestingly, harm reduction including HAT appears to lead to lower illicit heroin consumption, in part because free government heroin drives out private-sector providers. When addicts shoot up in safe rooms monitored by public-health staff, where they are recruited into treatment programmes or (if they fail or refuse) simply receive free heroin, it gradually erodes the market for dealing the drug. As they say in the tech world, you can’t compete with free.

PS.  I realize that ‘legalization’ is not quite the right term here, but neither is “decriminalization,” which implies a non-prison penalty such as a monetary fine. These countries have no penalty at all for heroin use, just a requirement that the drug be used in safe (actually “less dangerous”) conditions.

PPS.  “Harm reduction” is a nice utilitarian concept.  Unfortunately the countries in northern Europe are well ahead of the US in utilitarianism, which I regard as the most important difference between civilization and barbarism.



17 Responses to “The policy that must not be discussed”

  1. Gravatar of Ben Ben
    20. March 2014 at 05:45

    Hey, Scott. I like the post. Can you elaborate on your PPS? I’m not sure if you’re anti- or pro- utilitarianism from the way you worded it!

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. March 2014 at 06:33

    Thanks Ben, I’m strongly “pro” utilitarian.

  3. Gravatar of Alek Alek
    20. March 2014 at 08:03

    in your PS you say there are no monetary fines in these countries…

    I seem to recall that this not the case in Spain, where a small percentage of offenders do have to pay fines.

    The usual punishment is mandatory meetings with a social worker and legal representation.

    I imagine the fine is in proportion to ability to pay and probably lack of cooperation with the assigned social workers, but that is just speculation.

  4. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    20. March 2014 at 08:38

    If legalization of non-violent activity is considered a “benefit to humanity”, in that it would allow for individuals to solve their own problems alone and in voluntary cooperation with others, then who among those who are “for” benefiting humanity would include legalization of money, roads, and security / protection / judicial services?

    In other words, who among those who believe in “benefiting humanity” via legalization of non violent “crimes”, are willing to be consistent and advocate for anarchy?

    I find it difficult to reconcile the presumed “compassion” in wanting non-violent drug “criminals” to avoid punishment and jail, with the support of a monetary and protection system that punishes and throws non-violent money and protection “criminals” in jail. That is what is required for there to be both a government, and central banking and NGDPLT “policy.” The term is “policy” because it is backed by threats of lethal force for non-compliance. It is a euphemism designed to muddy the fact that it requires non-violent dissenters to be initiated with violence.

    Pragmatists and gradualists cannot claim to be compassionate or defenders of human health and freedom. Only absolutists can do so. The rest are poseurs and hypocrites.

  5. Gravatar of mpowell mpowell
    20. March 2014 at 12:18

    I have been talking about this as soon as I heard about the Dutch program. I hesitate to call it brilliant as I think any research group that though about the problem for a while would probably churn out this solution, but still it highlights the incredible poverty of thought exemplified by a debate between the current US policy regimine and ‘legalization’ or ‘decriminalization’. It’s about nothing more than thinking through the actual impact of policy and coming up with something that minimizes harm, both to users and the general public, without allowing wishful thinking or inane moralizing to drive policy making. What’s amazing to me is the incredibly poor reception I get discussing this policy, but maybe that’s on me more than anything else.

  6. Gravatar of Jon Biggar Jon Biggar
    20. March 2014 at 12:20

    I find nothing “civilized” in utilitarianism, since it is far too easy to use as a tool of tyranny that supresses individual rights.

  7. Gravatar of mpowell mpowell
    20. March 2014 at 12:25


    How many people have actually been jailed for refusing to comply with the US monetary system? Is the answer greater than zero? You have to actually show that suffering is the result of this program for it to be relevant in this conversation. The current drug regime is resulting in massive suffering. There is an alternative regime that could massively reduce suffering. On the other hand, anarchy would not make things better. So I’m sorry it’s quite possible to justify one but not the other. For all of your grand language, the contradiction you propose is resolved so trivially…

  8. Gravatar of o. nate o. nate
    20. March 2014 at 12:30

    This kind of treatment approach sounds great but can you imagine the libertarian outcry at this kind of paternalistic government program in the US?

  9. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    20. March 2014 at 13:17


    It doesn’t matter how many people chose to dissent (which would encompass, among other things, not paying US dollar taxes, especially on gold “capital gains”, since it would require a person to earn US dollars)

    What matters is the threat of violence for non-compliance.

    In another context, it would not matter how many prisoners tried to escape and got subsequently shot by the guarda manning the towers. What matters is that there is the credible threat in the first place.

    I have to show the suffering to you? How could I when your theory makes it impossible for you to even percieve it? You apparently can’t percieve the boom bust cycle and unemployment caused by central banking. You apparently can’t percieve tax evaders who get shot or imprisoned. You apparently can’t percieve the current talk in government about how to tax people in dollars, who trade in Bitcoin.

    Just because there wasn’t perpetual war and revolution under monarchies, or despotisms, or fascist dictatorships, just because there is or can be obedience, it does not mean it is non-violent.

    If you threatened your neighbor with death if he doesn’t pay you a portion of his income, such that he willingly gives his money to you without question, then would it be correct to claim that because I cannot directly percieve your neighbor “suffering” from physical abuse, that your actions are therefore not violent, not reducing his well being?

    Democratic constitutional government is more subtle in how people use violence for exploitation purposes.

    You have to think underneath the surface.

    You’re right that anarchy would make “people” worse off. Those who are currently benefiting from parasitic exploitqtion based on statist violence and coercion would definitely be worse off, in the short run, should their hosts become free. But the hosts would be better off. I do not call for what I call for, for the sake of material well being of a group of people in the short run. I call for justice, which just so happens to result in some people losing in the short run, others gaining in the short run, and everyone gaining in the long run.

    What “contradiction” am I proposing? Is it anything like “Initiating violence is wrong, except when those with badges do it.” ?

  10. Gravatar of benjamin cole benjamin cole
    20. March 2014 at 15:57

    I suppose then no one agrees with my proposal that we publicly horsewhip alcoholics?
    15,000 people a year are murdered in the USA—by drunk drivers.
    That’s 180,000 Americans since 9/11.
    And we murder suspected terrorists.

  11. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    20. March 2014 at 16:38


    Think of all the murder we’d have if people couldn’t drink.

  12. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    20. March 2014 at 17:01

    benjamin cole:

    Politicians drink, sometimes heavily so.

  13. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    20. March 2014 at 18:54

    Morgan and Major–

    It is astonishing, no?

    If terrorists had killed 180,000 Americans since 9/11, we would be an armed police state (worse than we are), and you would have to walk around with a beeper on. A webcam would be in your home and car.

    The power of propaganda…btw there used to be “dry counties” in Texas in the 1970s when I lived there….don’t know if they are there still….

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    21. March 2014 at 04:46

    Alek, Good point. I meant the two countries the article focused on, I should have been more specific, as I knew little about the other cases.

    mpowell, You said;

    “What’s amazing to me is the incredibly poor reception I get discussing this policy, but maybe that’s on me more than anything else.”

    No, it reflects the fact that Americans tend to be stupid Puritans.

    Jon, Actually it’s extremely hard to use it that way, as freedom usually boosts human welfare. Tyrannies tend to be anti-utilitarian—look at North Korea.

    o. nate, I think most libertarians would see the program as a vast improvement over jailing drug users, even if it wasn’t their ideal policy.

  15. Gravatar of Steve Roth Steve Roth
    21. March 2014 at 08:01

    I think Medicalization is a good term.

  16. Gravatar of Gabe Gabe
    21. March 2014 at 10:32

    I thought the policy not to be disccussed is diffferent tools of QE besides a complicated(easily skimmed or front-runned) bond issuing/buying scheme.

    it seems there are many more straightforward ways to implement a monetary expansion, but the since the super rich liek it the way it is we do not see it discussed in public and especially not in the elite owned mainstream media.

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. March 2014 at 05:12

    Gabe, Nice try, but we see LOTS of discussion of higher taxes on the rich.

Leave a Reply