Friday, 28 July 2017

Why Can't More People See The Obvious Distinction Between Banning & Disapproving?

There was mass outrage yesterday in response to a London jazz bar whose job advert specified they wanted 'extremely attractive staff' who 'must be comfortable wearing heels'. Now personally this doesn't seem like a very great place to either work or visit - it seems quite superficially minded, and will probably have a client base that reflects this. Hopefully, if enough people act with their feet, then this jazz club will be hit with lower profits, and may then look to advertise more prudently (because the point is, it's easy to hire good looking females if you want to without having to state that's what you're looking for on the job advert).  

Notice what I did in the above paragraph - I told you about my personal feelings towards the advert and the jazz bar. What I would not do, and nor should anyone else, is say that this advert should be taken down or banned from existing. Because one of the basic principles of being free citizens who enjoy personal liberty is that if you happen to run your own business you should be able to hire whoever you like. 

If you make bad decisions you may suffer loss of profits, and develop a bad reputation - sometimes you may even go out of business - but a society that thinks it can tell you who you can and cannot employ is an oppressive wolf, even if it appears to be dressed in the clothing of protective sheep. C.S Lewis put it well:

The example I've given above pretty well summarises why I write as I do on a broader level. That is to say, people know how to run their lives better than any state, monarchy or government. That's not a blanket truism for every single individual in the world, but it's true for the vast majority of people, and it's true in the majority of ways that relate to how we live our lives by making cost/benefit analyses and exercise freedom of choice.

Governments are always going on about the welfare of its citizens - but the irony they miss is that a lot of what they do compromises the welfare those citizens would otherwise enjoy. Take an obvious and frequent example - the price of alcohol. Every government policy is based on the notion that alcohol is bad for its users. It is, but it is also good for its users, because the people who drink alcohol wilfully choose the pleasures and accept the costs. 

Alcohol drinkers are people for whom the pleasure of social drinking outweighs the risk of death, liver damage, addiction and a shorter life. If they valued better health and longer lives they'd drink less or not at all. If you're in the first group then drinking lots of alcohol delivers a net gain; if you’re in the second group then drinking lots of alcohol delivers a net loss.

Because it is impossible for the state to know how much every individual values health, exercise, weight training, smoking, alcohol, casual sex, and so forth, it is impossible for the government to know better than its citizens what is good for them. A good government would understand this, and seek to minimise its involvement in our lives to enhance our welfare and liberty.

But: and here's the important but - there is one important caveat – people’s decisions are affected by the information they have. A lot of people are informed enough to make rational choices about whether they want to drink alcohol. But some people are not. If they’ve lived in a house in which drunkenness was the norm, or in which information about healthy living was scarce, they may not properly understand the benefits or costs. Misinformation increases the likelihood that you’ll either underestimate the costs or underestimate the benefits.

Light regulation is fine
So clearly, for this reason, being a libertarian doesn't mean adopting a 100% erosion of regulatory influence. Many regulatory laws are superfluous, but not all of them are. We need laws that protect factory employees from working in dangerous conditions unbeknown to them. If two people know the details and engage in a mutually beneficial transaction, then state involvement is mostly superfluous. But if Jack is employing Jill and putting her life at risk due to faulty equipment or dodgy wiring, I don't want Jill to be devoid of protection through the law.

Where the law works for me is when it guards people against harms that live outside of anything that could be defined as a mutually beneficial transaction with transparency. But there are lots of ways the government harms mutually beneficial transactions and makes the nation worse off. Here are three examples off the top of my head.

1) A government will impose import tariffs on consumers at prices they wanted to pay, and tell them it's for their own good because they are only better off if they doing more exporting than importing (which even a simpleton ought to know isn't true).

2) A government will use taxpayers' money to bail out or subsidise a failing industry that has simply been outcompeted by other industries abroad or has lost its relevance by ever-changing technology. In doing so they will make their citizens believe they are doing good thing, even though there is a huge net loss, and that a lot of that loss is felt by British consumers and by other British industries that trade with these foreign companies two, three, four or five steps down the line.

3) A government will distort the natural and important information-carrying signal of value by imposing price floors and price ceilings because it follows the lead of the majority of its citizens who are almost wholly ignorant on these matters.

Those are just three examples that first spring to mind - as regular readers of my blog will know, there are dozens of other examples.

I've always said, I'm fine with light government regulation for health and safety standards, protection against nefarious use of asymmetry of information, a stable rule of law, property rights, etc - but the moment the state interferes in the natural mechanism of prices, supply and demand, I want them to relinquish their control.

Pondering our freedoms
All that said, here's where things get a little knottier. Being a libertarian I don't want the state to interfere much in our freedoms - therefore, I don't want them banning things related to what we do to our bodies, like abortion, prostitution and drug-taking. But being a Christian, I do disapprove of those things - not in the sense of being sententious or judgemental against partakers in those activities, but simply in thinking that they are bad for us and harmful to the people involved, and therefore undesirable.  

But quite why so many people think that that means we ought to call for their criminalisation is peculiar to me. There is nothing terribly inconsistent about believing things to be socially undesirable yet still not wanting them criminalised. After all, infidelity is one of the most socially hurtful things, so is unkindness, but no one thinks they should be illegal.

Just because some of us don't want the state telling us how to behave when it comes to abortion, prostitution and drugs, it doesn't mean we need to proclaim those things as wonderful - it is easy to simultaneously value the liberty to do these things and the prudence to advise against them. And this is perhaps the key take home lesson - we must be wise of the difference between banning and disapproving: they are not always natural bedfellows.

Some personal thoughts
I have to confess, while (hopefully) most balanced minds can agree that making abortion illegal would be a terrible thing, I'm not actually very comfortable with the idea of making prostitution legal (by which I mean brothels, as technically it is not illegal to pay someone for sex - what is illegal is soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and pandering), and I'm still very torn on the issue of drug legality.

The main issue I have with laws against prostitution and drugs is that it creates an underground sub-culture, which in itself brings additional criminality. On the one hand, making it legal would eradicate much of the underground sub-culture that puts young women at risk (although not all of it), but on the other hand keeping some things illegal has positive societal influence in that it tries to avoid normalising things that are possibly social undesirable.

It would seem, then, that people who disagree about the (il)legality of activities may disagree on whether an activity is desirable, or they may simply disagree about to what extent the state should interfere in our liberties. For example, I think brothels are socially undesirable from a Christian perspective, but from the libertarian perspective that doesn't necessarily mean I want them to be illegal. I perhaps could argue that the costs of prohibition (underground sub-culture, state suppressing our liberties, home office costs) are not a worthy price to pay, and that allowing this socially undesirable act is the lesser of two costs. Someone else, on the other hand, may disagree that it is socially undesirable, and call for its legality on grounds of social approval as well.

For me, whether an act is socially (un)desirable or not, and whether it should be illegal or not are perhaps two parts of the same question about whether the act harms anyone else in a way that's socially undesirable. I say 'socially undesirable' because almost all acts cause some social inconvenience to others, even buying the last newspaper on the rack, or joining a queue on a busy road, but no one seriously thinks these acts should be illegal.

Is it socially undesirable to have an abortion to the extent that it should be illegal? I'd argue definitely not, because the rights of a woman over her own body always trump the right of the state to force her to keep a baby. But do the rights of a woman over her own body extend to selling her body for sex in a brothel and taking drugs? One could possibly argue a case for selling sex in a brothel - it's her body and if she wants to use it to sell sex she is perfectly entitled to do so. The social harms would be that this kind of transaction becomes more normalised, and it may encourage more married men to pay for sex. But as we've said, affairs harm relationships and the children, but no one is saying they should be illegal. As long as the profession was well regulated to guard against exploitation and, rather like it is in the ordinary workplace, I think I could argue for its legalisation, and for people's freedom to engage in sex for money if they fancied.

Drugs is the most difficult issue for me
This just leaves drugs, and I'm afraid that even as a libertarian, of the three, I find drugs the most difficult, for reasons I'll explain. I was challenged by a friend, who said something along the lines of "I find it odd that you claim to be a libertarian and yet support legislation restricting access to currently illegal drugs. Care to elaborate why this isn't oxymoronic?"

As I indicated, I'm still not 100% sure how I feel about the issue of drugs like cannabis and their legality. I said earlier that where the law works for me is when it guards people against harms that live outside of anything that could be defined as a mutually beneficial transaction with transparency. And I understand the liberalising argument that if Jack wants to smoke weed, and Jill wants to take LSD, and Geoff wants to get drunk, and Mary wants to ride a horse, and so on, that they should be free to do as they wish provided it doesn't harm others.

But heroin does harm to more than just the user - its addiction is behind so much crime - and that wouldn't change if it was legalised, because as far as I can see, for the addict demand for the drug exceeds affordability, so they turn to crime, or in the case of young girls, they get sold into prostitution against their will to feed their habit.

So although small state works well for me in areas in which people have lucid self-determination, I think there are quite a lot of people that do require a strong state that can legislate of their behalf. Maybe that's not an argument against legalising cannabis, but I feel it is an argument against legalising heroin.

I was challenged though by a friend to read some Douglas Husak on this. He makes the point that heroin, and opiates in general, are still lower harm than even alcohol, according to ISCD. And we now know that diamorphine can effectively be "brewed" - very cheaply - the lab that discovered it has put it on hold until someone in government can tell them how to handle it, but the upshot of it is that some sugar water and GM yeast can create it by the vat load like beer.

He also made the challenging point that it is perfectly possible in the right circumstances to maintain a heroin habit. Like alcohol, it will catch up with your good health eventually, but it does not require crime to fund it except that it is controlled so heavily. The illegal supply chain makes it many hundreds of times more expensive than it need be. And some of the worst effects are because people who are desperate for it in that market are lured into other things - the man in the white BMW doesn't care whether he sells you rubbish diamorphine, or crack, and you don't care what you get so long as it does something.

It's also worth mentioning that diamorphine (heroin) is the world’s most powerful painkiller. It and the less powerful morphine are used currently in UK hospitals. So the question is whether various chemical compounds should be classified into 1) freely available, 2) licensed over-the-counter, 3) prescription, 4) hospital controlled and 5) illegal. It’s a big and complex debate.

I think at the moment I'm concerned about legalising heroin outside of the medical profession because it does so much harm to people's lives, and to the countless victims of crime, exploited girls, etc. If we got to a situation where it could be intelligently bought and sold without the criminal/exploitation factor, rather like alcohol is now, I'd be more up for it. I just think that we are not at that stage yet, for all sorts of complex reasons. Take countries like Mexico and Colombia - they certainly don't seem ready yet.

I suppose, finally, there is a quite interesting subtext for me regarding the drugs issue - a kind of meta-analysis - in that I'm quite torn about the legalisation of some of these drugs, but am also not entirely sure why I'm so torn or what it would take to make me adopt a more convinced viewpoint. Would more information change my mind? Is it that the wider issues are too intractable to formulate a solid but philosophically justifiable conviction? Or is it that there is no easy answer and that being able to see merit and demerit from each side means a somewhere-in-between position is the most intellectually tenable? I'm not entirely sure.