Scenes from a Moral Panic

From Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine (1997), The Crack Attack: Politics and Media in the Crack Scare.
On September 5, 1989, President Bush, speaking from the presidential desk in the Oval Office, announced his plan for achieving “victory over drugs” in his first major prime-time address to the nation, broadcast on all three national television networks. We want to focus on this incident as an example of the way politicians and the media systematically misinformed and deceived the public in order to promote the War on Drugs. During the address, Bush held up to the cameras a clear plastic bag ofcrack labeled “EVIDENCE.” He announced that it was “seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House” (Washington Post, September 22,1989,p.A1). Its contents, Bush said, were “turning our cities into battle zones and murdering our children.” The president proclaimed that, because of crack and other drugs, he would “more than double” federal assistance to state and local law enforcement (New York Times, September 6, 1989,p.A11). The next morning the picture of the president holding a bag ofcrack was on the front pages of newspapers across America.

About two weeks later, the Washington Post, and then National Public Radio and other newspapers, discovered how the president of the United States had obtained his bag of crack. According to White House and DEA officials, “the idea ofthe President holding up crack was [first] included in some drafts” of his speech. Bush enthusiastically approved. A White House aide told the Post that the president “liked the prop….It drove the point home.” Bush and his advisors also decided that the crack should be seized in Lafayette Park across from the White House so the president could say that crack had become so pervasive that it was being sold “in front of the White House” (Isikoff,1989).

This decision set up a complex chain of events.White House Communications Director David Demarst asked Cabinet Affairs Secretary David Bates to instruct the Justice Department “to find some crack that fit the description in the speech.” Bates called Richard Weatherbee, special assistant to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh,who then called James Milford, executive assistant to the DEA chief. Finally, Milford phoned William McMullen,special agent in charge of the DEA’s Washington office, and told him to arrange an undercover crack buy near the White House because “evidently, the President wants to show it could be bought anywhere” (Isikoff,1989).

Despite their best efforts,the top federal drug agents were not able to find anyone selling crack (or any other drug) in Lafayette Park,or anywhere else in the vicinity of the White House.Therefore,in order to carry out their assignment, DEA agents had to entice someone to come to the park to make the sale. Apparently,the only person the DEA could convince was Keith Jackson,an eighteen-year-old African-American high school senior. McMullan reported that it was difficult because Jackson “did not even know where the White House was.”The DEA’s secret tape recording of the conversation revealed that the teenager seemed baffled by the request: “Where the [expletive deleted] is the White House?” he asked. Therefore, McMullan told the Post, “we had to manipulate him to get him down there. It wasn’t easy” (Isikoff,1989).

The undesirability of selling crack in Lafayette Park was confirmed by men from Washington,D.C., imprisoned for drug selling, and interviewed by National Public Radio. All agreed that nobody would sell crack there because,among other reasons, there would be no customers. The crack-using population was in Washington’s poor African-American neighborhoods some distance from the White House. The Washington Post and other papers also reported that the undercover DEA agents had not, after all, actually seized the crack, as Bush had claimed in his speech. Rather, the DEA agents purchased it from Jackson for $2,400 and then let him go.

This incident illustrates how a drug scare distorts and perverts public knowledge and policy. The claim that crack was threatening every neighborhood in America was not based on evidence; after three years ofthe scare, crack remained predominantly in the inner cities where it began. Instead, this claim appears to have been based on the symbolic political value seen by Bush’s speech writers. When they sought, after the fact, to purchase their own crack to prove this point, they found that reality did not match their script. Instead of changing the script to reflect reality, a series of high-level officials instructed federal drug agents to create a reality that would fit the script. Finally, the president of the United States displayed the procured prop on national television. Yet, when all this was revealed, neither politicians nor the media were led to question the president’s policies or his claims about crack’s pervasiveness.

Private Policing I Find Disturbing

Some residents of New Brighton, Christchurch are sick of the police failing to control crime and have taken to patrolling the streets. I would be all for that were these guys not a bunch of white supremacists.

A “white pride” group, Right Wing Resistance (RWR), claims to be patrolling New Brighton streets that “the police and the system has all but given up on”.

The group, linked to North Island-based white power activist Kyle Chapman, says Christchurch is the centre of a “white pride” revival.

Films of their initiation ceremonies were listed on an internet site for “white nationalists” called WNTube.

A message board used by the group, Stormfront.org, said the group was performing “crimewatch patrols” aimed at “cutting down on homie [American rap-style] vandalism and muggings that have become common on the east side of CHCH”.

“The police and the system in general has all but given up on the poor areas and it is left to us to sort this out now,” it said. (…)

Locals were getting very upset with youths, particularly Polynesian youths, standing over people and vandalising.” (…)

If a European youth was found vandalising property: “We’d probably say `Hey, what are you doing? That’s not really the white way’.” (…)

New Brighton Residents Association member George Aorangi Stanley said “boot boys” had been spotted “hanging around looking menacing”.

“I don’t know if you’d consider it patrolling. I just consider them as contributing to the tension.”

The group had correctly tapped into local concern about crime and safety, she said. “It’s the main topic of conversation at the [Residents Association] meetings.”

Aorangi Stanley said the association had discussed doing their own patrols – a “reclaim the night” action – to increase safety.

This is the kind of thing Eric Crampton and I worry about in our paper on meddlesome preferences in anarchy, recently discussed here and here. (New Brighton, by the way, is Eric’s neck of the woods – I wonder if he has noticed anything?) Without government to provide public or quasi-public goods like policing, private clubs will step in to fill the gap. Of course, not all private clubs are created equal and those most able to overcome collective action problems will become more common in anarchy (or, as we see here, dysfunctional government). Further, small groups with intense preferences will have more power relative to large groups with weak preferences in anarchy compared to democracy.

The economics of religion pioneered by Larry Iannaccone, another of the amazingly interesting economists at GMU, suggests that clubs which require costly signals of commitment to the group – often including the internalization of wacky beliefs and efforts to make oneself stigmatized by the outside world –  will be more successful. Iannaccone is interested in sects, but his logic also applies to secular gangs like skinheads. Costly signalling means that we can’t rely on the standard incentive arguments against bigotry being expressed through markets. Beating up Polynesian kids is costly, but if it works to signal one’s commitment to the group, the costliness is a feature rather than a bug. On average, then, high-commitment clubs will instill preferences which favour the violation of others’ rights more than low-commitment clubs. Since these small groups with intense have more say in anarchy (where willingness to pay largely determines outcomes)  than democracy (where the raw numbers supporting some policy largely determines outcomes) , anarchy produces the situation it is least able to handle. So, by the way, does democracy.

Now, if the skinheads in New Brighton really are making the streets safer (which I doubt), the benefits will be enjoyed by residents regardless of whether they join or not. The fact that the group can get a bunch of guys to produce a public good (even if it’s intimidation of Polynesian kids) indicates that they’ll also be pretty good at producing a whole lot of club goods only enjoyed by members. If the role of government decreases, then, the skinheads will attract more members and we should expect more racist violence in New Brighton.

I still favour anarchy, but I do think this is something to worry about. Fortunately, it’s also something that reasonable people can work towards avoiding. The community association conducting its own patrols will reduce the leverage the skinheads can get in the community. More generally, efforts to create non-bigoted groups to voluntarily produce public goods will fill the void sects emerge to fill.

Smoking is Gay

This video from The Onion is funny, but not too far from the reality of current campaigns (Hat tip: Balko).

Many PSAs aim to stigmatize smokers rather than inform people of health risks of smoking. I’ve always hated New Zealand’s Not Our Future campaign for this reason. They’ve just started running some new ads. The message of one is a pretty clear: “If you smoke, you won’t get laid.” It seems to ask local two-bit celebrities (both male and female) whether they’d go out with a smoker. The responses are what you’d expect: “Hell no!” “It’s unattractive” “It stinks.”

They have a shitty site, so I can’t link to it directly, but you can watch it by going to videos (TV in lower left corner), adverts, advert 1.  If anyone finds a linkable or embeddable version, please let me know in the comments.

Moral Monopolies of Church and State

Benito Arruñada has a fascinating post at Organizations and Markets:

Moral codes can be produced and enforced through markets or through organizations. In particular, Catholic theology can be interpreted as a paradigm of the organizational production of morality. In contrast, the dominant moral codes are now produced in something resembling more a market.

The organizational character of Catholicism comes from its centralized production and enforcement of the moral code by theologians and priests and the mediation role played by the Church between God and believers. (…)

Instead of centralized decisions by popes, councils, and theologians, the moral code is now written by millions of human decentralized interactions of all sorts. Now that there are thousands of gods, including the environment, mediation has also been transformed or disappeared. These market features make for lesser specialization. Most morality producers also play many other functions, from teaching to advertising.

Thinking about the production of moral norms in these terms certainly seems like a useful way to approach the problem, but I’m not so sure production is really so decentralized today.

My historical knowledge is weak, but I doubt that the moral authority of the Church was anywhere near complete in even the most ardently Catholic societies. The Church claimed a monopoly on morality, and many people went along with it to a greater or lesser degree. This seems pretty close to what government does today. The state doesn’t simply create laws aimed at resolving the inevitable conflicts among people, but attempts to influence public opinion through various types of propaganda – telling people not to smoke or get drunk and dance, for example.

Of course, government is the emergent (and I would say dysfunctional) product of the decentralized interaction of many individuals, rather than a unitary decision-making entity. I would suggest, though, that this is also true of the Catholic Church. The church claims to derive its authority from God, but the economics of religion teaches us that churches do not survive unless they meet the needs of practitioners. The Catholic Church would not have become so dominant in so many places if it weren’t attuned to the preferences of many people, even if its later market power increased the slack available to the clergy.

Church and state both claim a monopoly over legitimate morality, and have often done so quite successfully. Catholics in Ireland and Italy will almost universally pay lip-service the religious diktat against birth control, for example, and it will affect their behaviour somewhat. The same seems to be true of contemporary government diktats against smoking or getting drunk. The moral scope of the government in Western democracies is probably less than that of the Catholic Church at various times and places, but that scope is endogenous and increasing.

Live a Little, You Molly-Coddled Pantywaist

Government-funded social marketing campaigns are very common in New Zealand. We get a whole of TV ads telling us not to drink and drive, smoke, or behave like a munter. Many see this as an effort to educate the public and allow them to make informed choices. I, and other libertarians, might object to coercive taxation paying for these ads, but surely they are producing some good by empowering individual choice, right? Well, no. They are generally not bringing the public’s perception closer to reality, but pushing it further away.

Take smoking. It may or may not be true that prior to the extensive research into the health effects of smoking carried out in the latter half of the twentieth century, most people underestimated the dangers of tobacco. In any case, it is not true today. With all the propaganda we’ve been exposed to over the years, it would take a heroic feat of wilful ignorance to be unaware of the health risks of smoking.

In fact, it seems that people tend to overestimate the risks of smoking. Kip Viscusi has shown that both smokers and non-smokers overestimate the risk of contracting lung cancer due to smoking. He concludes that if risk perceptions were unbiased (i.e. if people were on average making fully informed decisions), the number of smokers would increase by 7.5% This overestimation of risk is greater for younger people, presumably reflecting their more complete indoctrination

There seem to be similar trends for many other activities we are urged not to do. A study conducted in Quebec, for example, found that people were more likely to overestimate than underestimate the likelihood of crashing, being injured, and getting caught while driving drunk.

The scaremongering over sexually transmitted disease has likely left you unduly frightened as well. American college students overestimate the risk of HIV transmission by a factor of 10 or more, and perceived risk exceeds actual risk even in relatively high-risk countries such as Malawi.

The obvious message of all this: if you’ve considered the pros and cons and remain unsure whether to have a ciggie, go bareback, or drive home from the pub – go ahead and do it. It’s more likely that you’re wrongly erring on the side of caution due to biased risk perceptions than it is you’re being reckless. Of course, you should take in account the risks you’re imposing on others, but if you’ve done that and your intuitive cost-benefit analysis of behaviour you’ve been repeatedly told not to engage in comes out roughly even, take the riskier option. You’ll have more fun and you’ll probably be fine.

Libertarian Music Friday: Throbbing Gristle Edition

Convincing People, which is about as close as Throbbing Gristle comes to a pop song:

Somebody Think of the Children!

Apparently, one third of American kids think the environmental apocalypse will destroy Earth by the time they grow up, and more than half think our evil, consumerist ways will make the planet a rather unpleasant place to live. I normally think of environmentalism as a feel-good pastime, occasionally resulting in bad policies that make us poorer and less free. This survey should remind us that environmental hysteria is also a severe mindfuck for younglings. While environmental externalities do cause some problems, quality of life (including environmental quality) is on a long upward trend and fears of environmental catastrophe are largely nonsense.

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