Posts Tagged ‘Government’

MG Vice

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Inspired by Vice for fun and profit (Michael Gerson, Washington Post 7/15/14 page A15).

Two of the larger social trends of our time — the growth of payday gambling and the legalization of marijuana — have two things in common: They are justified as the expansion of personal liberty, and they serve the interests of an expanding government.” – Michael Gerson

Dear Mr. Gerson:

Your article today attempts a neat trick,

Though I don’t think you’ll be able to make it stick.

It’s true that your party’s anti-government wing

Thinks any government is a bad thing.

But I doubt that you can use that anti-government vigor

To turn them against legalizing pot because it makes government bigger.

Why? If you really want to know,

Please read my reasons below.

***

I agree with many of the points you make in today’s article: both legalization and decriminalization even such drugs as marijuana raises issues, and will have negative consequences that are often not adequately considered (less so decriminalization). But your central conclusion that legalization of pot and gambling (the other social vice you focus on) is a harbinger of Big Government ignores several countervailing factors.

First, it is counterintuitive, as you yourself indicate in your opening paragraph. How can an expansion of liberty simultaneously expand government? Of course, counterintuitive things are sometimes none-the-less true (e.g., Civil Rights, which used an expanded federal government role to protect the liberty of African Americans in the South). But counter intuitiveness results in a higher burden of proof for its proponent, not a lower one, and your article does not meet that burden.

Second, your conclusion rests on the assumption that a new source of tax revenue invariable results in the expansion of government. That is of course one of the anti-government right’s favorite assumptions, but it is nonetheless unproven. Instead of resulting in new spending, a new source of tax revenue may replace existing revenue, resulting in no increase in government spending, nor is it true that reduction in tax revenue invariably leads to a reduction of spending. If fact, that result is what has happened in the past 13 years: Large GOP tax cuts under George W. Bush resulted in no reduction in spending (quite the opposite). Nor is it likely that any revenue increases from taxing marijuana will result in increased government activity, given that states are using those revenues to finance existing activities in the face of declining revenues. You yourself hint at this, telling your imaginary state legislator that “your state has incurred a variety of unfunded obligations.” If they’re unfunded obligations that the state has already incurred, that means that additional revenue to finance them is funding existing government, not expanded government.

Third, your focus on the expansion of liberty that decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana is too narrow because you consider only the freedom to smoke pot (or gamble, given that following your premise to its logical conclusion means that all legal gambling would be shut down and made illegal). But that is by no means the only freedom which our current system takes away. The secondary effects of our current approach (second-hand smoke, as it were) are much larger: the disproportionate arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of minorities, the life-long impact that a drug conviction has on future prospects, etc. These secondary effects are real, need to be added to the ledger when considering decriminalization/legalization’s costs and benefits.

Fourth, and most damningly, your argument ignores the incredibly large expansion of government that marijuana’s criminalization has entailed: local police resources, federal enforcement, growth of the prison population, and that not decriminalizing all gambling would similarly involve (imagine how much money would be needed to enforce a 100% ban on gambling, as opposed to allowing it to take place in regulated settings). Decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana would greatly reduce those expenditures, allowing government to shrink. You completely ignore that side of the government services ledger, just as many Republicans who oppose environemental protection focus solely on the cost side of the ledger and ignore regulatory benefits.

I get that you’re trying to appeal to the Republican Party’s anti-government wing (otherwise known as the Republican Party, given that Republicans are united in their hatred of government, differing only in the degree of that hate), but the premise is a stretch at best, and not worthy of your usual standard of analysis. Usually, you don’t resort to the one-sided argument that your GOP brethren often engage in. In this case, I guess you just succumbed to that vice.

Don’t worry: We all slip up sometimes.

***

Here‘s your theme music, the theme song from the 1980s TV show Miami Vice.

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