Archive for September 4th, 2012

What do Mona Charen, Ron Paul, Cory Booker, Pat Robertson, Gov. Gary Johnson, and Sir Richard Branson all have in common?

Almost nothing, I imagine, but they do agree on one thing. It’s time to rethink the War on Drugs.

We can also add John Stossel to the list. Here’s some of what he wrote in his recent Townhall column. Let’s start with his powerful – and pragmatic – argument that the Drug War encourages criminal behavior.

The media (including Fox News) run frightening stories about Mexican cocaine cartels and marijuana gangs. Few of my colleagues stop to think that this is a consequence of the war, that decriminalization would end the violence. There are no wine “cartels” or beer “gangs.” No one “smuggles” liquor. Liquor dealers are called “businesses,” not gangs, and they “ship” products instead of “smuggling” them. They settle disputes with lawyers rather than guns. Everything can be abused, but that doesn’t mean government can stop it. Government runs amok when it tries to protect us from ourselves. Drug-related crime occurs because the drugs are available only through the artificially expensive black market. Drug users steal not because drugs drive them to steal. Our government says heroin and nicotine are similarly addictive, but no one robs convenience stores to get Marlboros.

Citing the work of a scholar at the Manhattan Institute, John also comments on the Drug War’s destructive impact on the black community.

John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, indicts the drug war for “destroying black America.” McWhorter, by the way, is black. McWhorter sees prohibition as the saboteur of black families. “Enduring prison time is seen as a badge of strength. It’s regarded (with some justification) as an unjust punishment for selling people something they want. The ex-con is a hero rather than someone who went the wrong way.” He enumerates the positive results from ending prohibition. “No more gang wars over turf, no more kids shooting each other. … Men get jobs, as they did in the old days, even in the worst ghettos, because they have to.”

I don’t reckon that the Drug War does as much damage to African-Americans as the crummy government-run school system, but it’s probably not too far behind.

Stossel closes by looking at first principles.

“Once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of the government to protect the individual against his own foolishness,” economist Ludwig von Mises wrote, “why not prevent him from reading bad books and bad plays … ? The mischief done by bad ideologies is more pernicious … than that done by narcotic drugs.” If we adults own our own bodies, we ought to get to control what we put in them. It’s legitimate for government to protect me from reckless drivers and drunken airline pilots — but not to protect me from myself.

This is right on the mark. The War on Drugs is misguided because it creates crime. It’s misguided because it hurts the black community. And it’s misguided since government shouldn’t be in charge of micro-managing our lives.

P.S. Also keep in mind that the Drug War is the main excuse politicians given when they impose bad asset forfeiture laws and costly anti-money laundering laws. And it’s the Drug War that is usually the motive when politicians and courts erode our Fourth Amendment liberties and trample our individual rights.

P.P.S. Would you rather agree with John Stossel or Hillary Clinton?

P.P.P.S. And I’m sure you want to side with these Montana patriots, right?

P. P.P.P.S. You don’t need to approve of drugs or use drugs to recognize the Drug War is misguided. You can be uptight and straight-laced like me, but still recognize that the Drug War does far more harm than good.

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If we want to avoid the kind of Greek-style fiscal collapse implied by this BIS and OECD data, we need some external force to limit the tendency of politicians to over-tax and over-spend.

That’s why I’m a big advocate of tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy (read Pierre Bessard and Allister Heath to understand why these issues are critical).

Simply stated, I want people to have the freedom to benefit from better tax policy in other jurisdictions, especially since that penalizes governments that get too greedy.

I’m currently surrounded by hundreds of people who share my views since I’m in Prague at a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society. And I’m particularly happy since Professor Lars Feld of the University of Freiburg presented a paper yesterday on “Redistribution through public budgets: Who pays, who receives, and what effects do political institutions have?”.

His research produced all sorts of interesting results, but I was drawn to his estimates on how tax competition and fiscal decentralization are an effective means of restraining bad fiscal policy.

Here are some findings from the study, which was co-authored with Jan Schnellenbach of the University of Heidelberg.

In line with the previous subsections, we find that countries with a higher GDP per employee, i.e. a higher overall labor productivity, have a more unequal primary income distribution. …fiscal competition within a country or trade openness as an indicator of globalization do not exacerbate, but reduce the gap between income classes. …expenditure and revenue decentralization restrict the government’s ability to redistribute income when fiscal decentralization also involves fiscal competition. …fiscal decentralization, when accompanied by high fiscal autonomy, involves significantly less fiscal redistribution. Please also note that fiscal competition induces a more equal distribution of primary income and, even though the distribution of disposable income is more unequal, it is open how the effect of fiscal competition on income distribution should be evaluated. Because measures of income redistribution usu-ally have adverse incentive effects which consequently affect economic growth negatively, fiscal competition might be favorable for countries which have strong egalitarian preferences. A rising tide lifts all boats and might in the long-run outperform countries with more moderate income redistribution even in distributional terms.

The paper includes a bunch of empirical results that are too arcane to reproduce here, but they basically show that the welfare state is difficult to maintain if taxpayers have the ability to vote with their feet.

Or perhaps the better way to interpret the data is that fiscal competition makes it difficult for governments to expand the welfare state to dangerous levels. In other words, it is a way of protecting governments from the worst impulses of their politicians.

I can’t resist sharing one additional bit of information from the Feld-Schnellenbach paper. They compare redistribution in several nations. As you can see in the table reproduced below, the United States and Switzerland benefit from having the lowest levels of overall redistribution (circled in red).

It’s no coincidence that the U.S. and Switzerland are also the two nations with the most decentralization (some argue that Canada may be more decentralized that the U.S., but Canada also scores very well in this measure, so the point is strong regardless).

Interestingly, Switzerland definitely has significantly more genuine federalism than any other nation, so you won’t be surprised to see that Switzerland is far and away the nation with the lowest level of tax redistribution (circled in blue).

One clear example of Switzerland’s sensible approach is that voters overwhelmingly rejected a 2010 referendum that would have imposed a minimum federal tax rate of 22 percent on incomes above 250,000 Swiss Francs (about $262,000 U.S. dollars). And the Swiss also have a spending cap that has reduced the burden of government spending while most other nations have moved in the wrong direction.

While there are some things about Switzerland I don’t like, its political institutions are a good role model. And since good institutions promote good policy (one of the hypotheses in the Feld-Schnellenbach paper) and good policy leads to more prosperity, you won’t be surprised to learn that Swiss living standards now exceed those in the United States. And they’re the highest-ranked nation in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.

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